I Pay $166 for This Serum, But These Drugstore Dupes Might Be Just as Good

Ever since I started writing about beauty six months ago, there has been a handful of new-to-me skincare products that I keep hearing about. And one of those standout products is vitamin C serum, particularly the cult favorite SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic ($166). Seriously, it is spoken about with extreme reverence among my Who What Wear colleagues. They aren't even paid to say those things! And don't even get me started on those rave online reviews on Dermstore.

I had never really given much thought to adding a vitamin C serum to my skincare routine because I thought my skin was doing okay. Not to brag (and don't hate me), but I've been blessed with pretty good skin. It's probably genetics, right? I don't experience breakouts that often, and oil production is pretty manageable. My main skin gripes are dryness and dark under-eye circles that never seem to go away. So that's all to say I didn't really think I needed it. But my co-workers kept talking about how vitamin C serums—not just C E Ferulic, but vitamin C serums in general—really make your skin look awake, even when you don't feel that way.

And then Editor in Chief Kat Collings wrote this: "C E Ferulic is an antioxidant cocktail that will 1000% make your skin look better. I will never let it run out, and my fiancé is now hooked, too. The star ingredient is vitamin C, which is known to help with fine lines and wrinkles and brighten the complexion. It is the second most powerful product I've ever used on my skin. It has 1832 five-star reviews and is patented for a reason. C E Ferulic is a bit of a splurge, but I justify it like a typical fashion girl by thinking about it in terms of cost per wear. Since I wear my face every day, keeping it looking its best is absolutely worth the investment. There are lower-priced vitamin C serums and others that try to imitate the formula, but I do feel that SkinCeuticals is that effective because of its specific combination of ingredients at powerful percentages and because the formulation keeps the vitamin C stable. (The ingredient can easily become unstable aka ineffective.)"

Okay, Kat. You got me. So as they say, I was "influenced" by my co-workers and hit the "add to cart" button. My first thought after it was all said and done? "What did I just pay $166 for?!"


(Image credit: Sarah Yang)

After I got over the initial price shock, I anxiously awaited the serum's arrival. When I got the bottle, I held it in my hands like it was as fragile as a newborn baby. And the first time I put it on, I was careful not to spill any of that pricey formula. I diligently and carefully applied it to my skin. It felt a little warm. Maybe that was a sign it was working?

I've been using it for a couple of days now, and my face does look a little bit brighter and smoother. There's nothing too crazy to report back about, but like most skincare products, it does take some time and regular usage to produce results. I'm excited to see if it has as much healing power on my skin as it does on my colleagues' skin.

What is vitamin C serum?


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But let's back up a bit. You might be in the same boat as I was and think, "What the heck is a vitamin C serum? Do I really need it in my life?" I mean, if you're going to spend money on it—and not necessarily $166 but any amount on any of the serums out there—you're going to want to know what you're signing up for.

Well, I've got the answer for you. "Vitamin C is probably the most commonly recommended antioxidant ingredient that is widely touted as an essential component of your daily skincare routine," says board-certified dermatologist Flora Kim, MD, FAAD. "It is reported to be the 'holy grail' of skincare ingredients, as it is able to do multiple wonderful things for our skin, from neutralizing free radicals to lightening hyperpigmentation to addressing wrinkles—just to name a few." Its other benefits include reducing blemishes, treating acne outbreaks, stimulating collagen, and promoting radiance and even skin tone.

It's important to note that, while it is suitable for most skin types, it is a powerful antioxidant and shouldn't be overused and that there are some people who could be allergic to it. You might also experience some sensitivity when you start using the product. "It is a good idea to use very small amounts and not to use the product every day when you first begin to get your skin sensitized and to ensure you are not in the small group of people who may be allergic. Itching, redness, sensitivity, and tingling are symptoms of an allergy to vitamin C," explains board-certified dermatologist Jason Emer, MD, FAAD, who has his own vitamin C product, Aox-C ($165).

He does add that, if you have oily skin, you might want to proceed with caution, as the base of the product might make your skin more oily.

What to Look for in a Vitamin C Serum


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Not all vitamin C serums are created the same since they're all formulated differently and have varied ingredients. So it's important to check the labels to determine which product is best for your particular skin type and needs. Emer gave some tips for how to shop for one.

Pick the right concentration: Start lower and go higher as your skin gets acclimated, unless a high-concentration product has added skin-barrier protectants, mixed acids, or anti-inflammatories.


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Look for pH levels: Absorption of vitamin C is largely contingent on its pH level. If you have normal skin, look for one with a lower pH (3.5) for best absorption. If you have sensitive skin, you should use a formula with a pH of 5 to 6—closer to the skin's normal pH.

Combine with other good-for-skin ingredients: Combine with vitamin E, ferulic acid, vitamin B, hyaluronic acid, and peptides to further enhance its anti-aging and skin-lightening effects.

How to Apply Vitamin C Serum


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Emer recommends using the serum in the morning. In terms of the steps in your routine, apply the serum first, followed by any creams, ointments, and sunscreen.

You also might want to stay away from mixing certain skincare products. "Avoid mixing vitamin C with benzoyl peroxide, retinol, or other AHA/BHAs, as they can increase the skin sensitivity and cause irritation," Emer says. "Benzoyl peroxide and retinol can deactivate vitamin C, and you may not get the same benefits."

Vitamin C Serums to Try

If you think $166 is too steep of a price to drop on a product, especially if you're new to vitamin C serums, there are a ton of affordable options out there that are just as good. Take a look at some below.


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Managing Editor

Sarah is lifestyle writer and editor with over 10 years of experience covering health and wellness, interior design, food, beauty, and tech. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she attended New York University and lived in New York for 12 years before returning to L.A. in 2019.

In addition to her work on THE/THIRTY and Who What Wear, she held editor roles at Apartment Therapy, Real Simple, House Beautiful, Elle Decor, and The Bump (sister site of The Knot).

She has a passion for health and wellness, but she especially loves writing about mental health. Her self-care routine consists of five things: a good workout, “me” time on the regular, an intriguing book/podcast/playlist to unwind after a long day, naps, and decorating her home.