The Most Important Explanation of Vitamin C For Your Health.

By Dr. Deborah Lee

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Vitamin C  has a fascinating role in skin health.  Without sufficient vitamin C, our skin literally falls apart!  – I’m sure you’ve heard the tales of vitamin C deficiency causing  ‘scurvy’ –  flaking skin, and bleeding gums – when sailors became vitamin C deficient during long ocean voyages.

But did you know there are higher levels of vitamin C in the skin than in many other organs of the body? Scientists therefore believe this means vitamin C must be  important for skin health.  Thanks to medical research, we now understand so much more about the unique properties and functions of vitamin C, and why our skin just can’t do without it!

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What is Vitamin C?

Vitamin C also goes by the scientific name – L- ascorbic acid. Our bodies cannot make their own vitamin C, so we need to make sure we get enough of it every day, from our diet. 

Foods containing large amounts of vitamin C include guava, tomato juice, oranges, strawberries, peppers, broccoli, and potatoes, for example.

The key functions of vitamin C are summarised below. 

Vitamin C  –

  • Plays an important role in collagen synthesis – collagen is the major protein in bone, hair, skin, and nails
  • Is a powerful antioxidant
  • Helps absorption of non-haem iron in the gut – this is dietary iron taken in from plant-based foods
  • Helps wound healing

How to have healthy skin

  • Good nutrition 

Tip-top nutrition is essential for healthy, glowing skin – and this includes an adequate intake of vitamin C. Your skin is very much alive. Although dead skin cells are shed from the skin surface every day, new cells are constantly being produced and moving up through the layers of the skin, to replace them. This constant process of skin regeneration requires the full range of nutrients obtained from a balanced, healthy diet.

  • Good blood circulation

Getting these vital nutrients into the skin, requires a good blood supply to the skin. It’s very important to have a good blood circulation – both to transport these ingredients to where they are needed, but also to promptly remove metabolic waste products from the area. That’s why fresh air and exercise are so good for your complexion! 

The skin obtains most of the vitamin C it needs from the blood. However, it is also directly taken up inside your skin cells, after topical application of skin products containing vitamin C

The Epidermis

There is a higher concentration of vitamin C in the epidermis, the outer layers of the skin, than in the dermis, the deeper skin layers. This seems strange because the dermis has a much better blood supply than the epidermis. The epidermis, therefore, appears to need higher levels of vitamin C, and is more susceptible to relative vitamin C deficiency.

Most of the vitamin C is intracellular. Specific sodium-dependant vitamin C transporter receptors  (SVCTs – type 1, and type-2), have been identified, as  sites where vitamin C  passes from the plasma and enters skin cells in both the epidermis and the dermis.

What does Vitamin C do?

  • Boosts collagen 

Collagen is the protein which makes up the ‘skin scaffolding.’ It’s produced by specialist cells in the dermis, called fibroblasts. The production of collagen is heavily dependant on vitamin C. In animal studies, when vitamin C is absent, collagen production is reduced, and there is less cross-linking of collagen fibres, meaning the skin is less firm, and more elastic. This is what happens when skin sags and wrinkles.

  • Oxidative stress 

Let’s explain oxidative stress.  Our cells get their energy for cellular metabolism through oxidation – this is the name for the process which occurs when oxygen molecules are split in two. Unfortunately, this results in electrically charged particles, known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), or free radicals. 

Free radicals travel around the body and cause trouble. For example, they damage our DNA and cellular repair mechanisms. Luckily, free radicals are neutralized  (made inactive) by molecules called antioxidants. We take in antioxidants in our diet. 

When there is an imbalance – so too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants – this is called oxidative stress. 

Oxidative stress underpins the development of many serious medical conditions –  for example: atherosclerosis – which causes coronary artery disease, heart attack, and strokes- diabetes, cancer, and dementia. Combatting oxidative stress is the best way to stay in good health. That’s why we all need a diet full of fruit and vegetables, which provide the best source of antioxidants.

Oxidative stress in the skin results in collagen fibers becoming disorganized, and because of this, the skin becomes increasingly fragile. Oxidative stress, exacerbated by exposure to UV radiation, is a major cause of skin aging.  It also results in skin inflammation,  and is the major underlying cause of atopic dermatitis. Oxidative stress also plays a key role in the development of many different skin cancers, including melanoma

Vitamin C counteracts oxidative stress because it is an especially powerful antioxidant.  It has antioxidant effects throughout the whole body, but of note, it also  has a major antioxidant role in the epidermis, along with several other important antioxidants, such as vitamin E, and glutathione.

  • Inhibits melanin production 

Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the synthesis of the skin pigment melanin, in studies using both animal and human cells. This may be because it inhibits the enzyme tyrosinase, needed to produce melanin. Vitamin C skin products are used to prevent hyperpigmentation of the skin, and to reduce age spots.

  • Keratinisation 

During normal skin turnover, the cells undergo a process known as keratinisation

Keratinisation occurs when the protein keratin accumulates inside the epidermal cells themselves,  or is laid down as part of the mesh which supports the epithelial cell network, which holds all the cells together. Keratin therefore provides a large part of the barrier function of the skin.  It also helps ensure the skin can retain heat and water. 

Vitamin C has been shown in animal studies to promote keratinisation. It also increases barrier lipids, stimulates collagen, and regulates elastin production. As a result of all these factors, vitamin C has a major role in healing wounds, for skin and tissue repair.

  • Skin aging

As we age, our skin ages with us. The skin ages because of –

  • Environmental aging – due to exposure to environmental pollutants such as cigarette smoke, and UV light (causing sun damage).
  • Natural or intrinsic aging –The physiological changes of aging. There is a gradual thinning of the dermis, the blood supply to the dermis is reduced, there is a fall in the numbers of skin fibroblasts, less collagen production, and a reduction in the production of elastin. The aminoglycan content of the skin is reduced – aminoglycans such as hyaluronic acid, form an important part of the skin matrix and help give the skin its firmness/stiffness. 
  • We see these changes every day in the characteristic skin of the elderly, as their skin becomes increasingly pale, thin, dry, and develops the characteristic wrinkling and sagging. The barrier function becomes weakened, there is increasing skin fragility, and the skin now takes longer to heal.

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Vitamin C and Anti-Aging

Vitamin C has specific biochemical functions which are beneficial in helping to reduce skin aging. These are listed below –

  • UV damage

During our lifetime, our skin is exposed every day to UV radiation, which is harmful to the skin, and a major cause of skin aging. UV causes oxidative damage to the skin by increasing the production of free radicals. 

Vitamin C counteracts this oxidative stress. However, UV appears to directly reduce the amount of vitamin C in the skin. Vitamin C replacement in the skin, especially when used in conjunction with vitamin E, reduces skin injury from UV exposure. 

Once the skin has become visibly damaged by UV, this is not reversible.  To minimize skin aging, it’s essential to take good care of your skin and prevent photo-aging , throughout your whole lifetime.

A good dietary intake of vitamin C is vital.  However, direct application of vitamin C to the skin in skin products, also has benefits.

  • Relieves dry skin

Vitamin C stimulates the production of skin lipids. 

The cells of the epidermis are held together, a bit like cement, by a film of lipids – made up of ceramides, free fatty acids, triglycerides, cholesterol, and waxy substances, such as squalene.  

This lipid component helps the skin maintain its barrier function and retain water. When this lipid layer is damaged, the skin may become dry, itchy, and red. Aging naturally reduces the production of skin lipids. However, vitamin C has been shown to have a major role in the production of barrier lipids.

  • Fewer wrinkles

Studies have been inconclusive about whether vitamin C can help prevent wrinkles. Wrinkles are caused by the combined effects of intrinsic and extrinsic aging, which as we age result in in the skin becoming dry, thinned, loss of elasticity and sagging. 

There are many plausible reasons why vitamin C may be helpful in anti-aging. As already discussed, vitamin C helps prevent skin dryness, provides  protection from UV-related skin damage, and regulates the production of elastin.

Smoking is strongly associated with skin wrinkling. If you can manage to quit smoking – this will have major benefits for your skin. In one Italian study, giving up smoking reduced the biological skin age by an average of 13 years!

  • Wound healing

One of the most significant benefits of vitamin C is its ability to promote wound healing. In fact, delayed wound healing may be a sign of vitamin C deficiency. 

You can boost your Vitamin C levels by either increasing your dietary intake of vitamin C, taking oral vitamin C supplements,  or by using vitamin C-containing skin products. These have all been shown to improve wound healing. The benefits are thought to be largely because of the positive effects of vitamin C on collagen production, and its anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Skin inflammation

Vitamin C reduces skin inflammation, most likely due to its role as an antioxidant.  It also influences the release of inflammatory cytokines – cell signaling molecules which regulate the inflammatory response.

In one study, vitamin C levels in the plasma were found to be lower in people with atopic dermatitis. There may be a relationship between vitamin C levels and the synthesis of lipids in the outer skin layers.

What can we do to reduce skin aging?

  • Avoid environmental pollutants
  • Stop smoking
  • Have excellent nutrition including plenty of antioxidants
  • Prevent photo-aging (sun damage) by protecting our skin from UV light
  • Take HRT – estrogen delays skin aging
  • Apply skin products containing vitamin C, which can help combat the intrinsic and extrinsic aging process. Skin products containing vitamin C have specific effects on skin regeneration. 

Vitamin C Vitality Mask

This Vitamin C Vitality Mask from Prāz is a face mask which contains vitamin C powder and Bentonite clay.

  • Vitamin C powder is generally recommended over and above vitamin C serum because the product is more stable. You only mix the powder with water when you want to use it, meaning it is fresh and at it’s most potent. Vitamin C serums can biodegrade, even when stored and packaged correctly.
  • Bentonite clay is made from volcanic ash, and contains minerals such as calcium, iron, copper, and zinc. On application, the clay adsorbs dirt and impurities in your skin and absorbs water. The healing and restorative properties of clay for skin have been known for many years.

How to use a face mask

  • Secure your hair out of your face with a hair tie or headband.
  • If this is the first time you have used it, you might want to do a test area on your face to check you don’t have a skin reaction – although any skin reaction this would be very rare.
  • Mix a teaspoon or so of the face mask powder with about a teaspoon of water. Stir to make a greyish watery paste.  It does not have to be super sludgy – it will harden as it dries on your skin. I mix it up in the lid of the pot – turned upside down.
  • Apply to your skin all over your face with your fingers, taking care not to get any in your eyes. 
  • Keep your eyes closed. Look in the mirror to check you are covering all your facial skin as best possible.
  • Once the mask has been applied, allow it to dry on the skin for around 10 minutes. It’s a good time to put your feet up and have a cup of green tea!
  • Wash it off gently with water over the basin and pat your face dry gently with a towel. Repeat 2-3 times per week.
  • After the application, your skin will feel tight. Apply your usual moisturizer quite liberally.
  • Wash out the lid of the pot, dry it carefully and replace it securely until next time.

Final Thoughts

Taking care of your skin is such a worthwhile thing to do. So many women have skin complaints – ranging from dryness, redness and inflammation, and age-related changes such as sagging and wrinkling. Vitamin C is vital for healthy skin. You need plenty of vitamin C in your diet, but research has also shown that skin application of vitamin C has many benefits.

Using good quality skin products is extremely pleasurable. Give it some thought. What could you do to help improve your skin?

Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare Specialist & Freelance Healthcare Writer / Blogger.