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 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?!"

After I got over the initial price shock, I anxiously awaited its 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. 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?

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

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.

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

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.

Emer recommends this one from CeraVe, which is also formulated with ceramides and hyaluronic acid. It's fragrance- and paraben-free.

Emer likes this one because it has vitamin B to decrease redness and calm the skin.

Senior editor Allyson Payer said she was trading in her $80 serum for this $20 Amazon buy because it has a whopping 30,000 ratings. The formula contains both vitamin E and hyaluronic acid as well as botanicals like aloe vera and jojoba oil.

Formulated with 10% pure vitamin C, this one is a creamier formula that is quickly absorbed and leaves a matte finish. It's free of fragrances, parabens, mineral oils, and synthetic dyes.

Mario Badescu's product brightens skin tone and reduces the appearance of fine lines. It also contains smoothing and moisturizing ingredients like sodium hyaluronate and collagen.

Versed's Brightening Serum is another favorite in the Who What Wear office. And at just $20, this little yet powerful bottle is a total deal. In addition to vitamin C, the product contains skin-lightening agents, such as licorice root and palmaria palmata extract, and niacinamide to reduce discoloration.

One of my friends called this serum her C E Ferulic dupe. Because it's $20, she doesn't mind slathering it on with zero guilt. The vitamin E and ferulic acid in the product help to extend the effectiveness of the vitamin C. 

Glowy skin is in your future thanks to Honest Beauty's serum. In addition to vitamin C, it's infused with hyaluronic acid to draw moisture and artichoke extract to minimize the appearance of pores.

Both hydrating and protecting, this serum will have your skin feeling softer and refreshed and looking brighter. It's recommended to put three to five drops on your face morning and night.

Made with 15% pure vitamin C, Vichy's serum is supposed to brighten and firm your skin in 10 days. It also contains hyaluronic acid and vitamin E.

This vitamin C serum has salicylic acid, which can work to purify and refine the skin's tone and texture. It's also super hydrating thanks to thermal water and glycerin.

You can say goodbye to tired skin and hello to a healthy glow with RoC's daily serum. Most users see results in one week.

This is another well-reviewed vitamin C serum option. Ingredients include hyaluronic acid, aloe, and vitamin E. One Amazon reviewer wrote, "I really noticed a difference with this, as compared to some other serums I've used. My face was bright the next morning! It is also lightweight. I would recommend just using one pump, though. If you use more than one, it seems a bit sticky. Other than that, wonderful product!"

Along with the usual vitamin C and ferulic acid, Acure's serum is infused with pineapple extract and matcha to give you that extra glow. It's vegan and cruelty-free, too.

Reenergize your skin with this vitamin C serum that's got refreshing ingredients like antioxidant-rich arctic cloudberry, spring water, and hyaluronic acid. All of that works to plump, smooth, and brighten skin.

Next up, Makeup Artists Taught Me This 3-Minute Trick to Looking More Awake

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