This formulation is a super simple, beginner-friendly vitamin C suspension. You don’t have to worry about oxidization or pH, you’ll only need three ingredients, and the finished product will help fade hyperpigmentation, increase collagen production, boost healing, and brighten your complexion. Heck yes! I’ve been working on this formulation off and on for about three years, and I’m so excited to finally share it with you 😄
Want to watch this project instead of read it?
Why is vitamin C used in skincare?
Vitamin C is a fabulous, well studied skincare ingredient. It’s a potent antioxidant that helps brighten the complexion, increase collagen production, boost healing, and protect the skin from UV damage.
I first started using vitamin C regularly when I discovered The Ordinary back in 2016. Their Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2% quickly became a holy grail product for me as I noticed brightening and accelerated healing within days of starting to use it. Daily vitamin C use is a huge part of why my skin has improved so much since 2016. I’ll never go back!
Why is formulating with vitamin C challenging?
The most common (and most studied) form of Vitamin C—L-Ascorbic Acid—is very prone to oxidizing once mixed with water. In a matter of weeks (or less) it’ll turn orange and become ineffective. Preventing L-ascorbic acid from rapidly oxidizing in hydrous formulation is a challenge that many experienced formulators have tackled.
“The difficulty for the cosmetic formulator is that L-Ascorbic Acid is very unstable in aqueous solutions, as it starts to oxidize immediately, gradually producing color changes (orange/brown shift) and a reduction in activity as it converts to dehydroascorbic acid. For cosmetic use, it is best stabilized in an anhydrous lipid or silicone base, although some have reported increased stability with the use of Ferulic Acid as part of aqueous formulations.” (Source: LotionCrafter)
The most famous formulation is probably Skinceuticals’ CE Ferulic serum, which sells for $169USD/oz (😳) as of 2022, and is patented. “And [the Skinceuticals formulation] does still eventually break down, it’s still not entirely stabilised. The brand says it’s fine for 6 months after opening, while the patent suggests it can stay stable for a year” (Source: LabMuffin). You can learn more about the patent, the formulation, and L-ascorbic acid in general with this awesome post from Lab Muffin!
The Skinceuticals formulation gets great reviews, and the formulation from The Acid Queen looks awesome, but the investment for either option isn’t insignificant, so I’ve never tried either.
Another challenge when formulating with L-ascorbic acid and water is the pH; it’s quite acidic on its own, and will cause the pH of a formulation to drop. The desirable pH range for a L-ascorbic acid formulation is around 3–3.5, so you’ll need to test (and likely adjust) the pH of the formulation to ensure it falls in that range.
How does this formulation avoid common vitamin C formulation challenges?
This formulation avoids challenges of oxidization and pH by not including any water. Instead, it uses an ultralight, water-free gel to dilute and suspend the vitamin C. Easy peasy! My inspiration for this approach was (probably unsurprisingly!) The Ordinary‘s Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%, but there are other anhydrous L-ascorbic acid formulations on the market.
Suspension vs. Solution
This formulation is a suspension, not a solution. The L-ascorbic acid is suspended (not dissolved!) in an anhydrous base.
L-ascorbic acid is water soluble; in order for it to dissolve, a formulation needs to contain water. The key to the stability of this formulation is the absence of water.
L-ascorbic acid will not dissolve in this formulation. It will remain solid and will be noticeable if you rub this suspension directly into the skin without mixing it with some sort of product that contains water first.
This is why I encourage grinding and smashing the L-ascorbic acid as finely as possible and mixing it with a product that contains water before application.
L-Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)
This is our star ingredient—our skin-brightening, collagen-boosting, healing-accelerating, magic-maker 😄
L-ascorbic acid is the easiest to find and cheapest form of vitamin C. This is an ingredient that you can purchase the dietary supplement version of; just be sure it’s pure L-ascorbic acid powder and not a tablet that contains binding/pressing ingredients. The powdered L-ascorbic acid that The Ordinary sells will also work, and is reasonably priced for a small amount. Theirs works out to $0.29USD/g for 20g while Lotion Crafter’s 1oz package is $0.25USD/g.
L-ascorbic acid is a crystalline ingredient: yours might look like table salt, or could be a softer, fine white powder (more like icing sugar). If yours looks like table salt you’ll want to make it smaller for a smoother application. I ran mine through my DIY-only coffee grinder (wearing my dust mask!) and then further bashed it up with a mortar and pestle. I skipped one (or both) of these steps in earlier versions of this formulation and the end result was much rougher and slower to dissolve when mixed with watery products.
I’ve included a small amount of this lightweight, slippy liquid ester to thin the formulation out a bit. The finished suspension is still pretty thick, so I don’t recommend skipping this! You could definitely use a different lightweight liquid ester instead, though. Options include C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Isoamyl laurate, Coco-Caprylate, and Neossance® Hemisqualane. I purchased my isoamyl cocoate from New Directions Aromatics; the per mL cost is pretty good ($0.07/mL), but the smallest bottle they sell is 473mL/16fl oz, so the initial investment is on the steeper side.
If you’d like the formulation to be a bit thinner you could use more isoamyl cocoate and less silicone gel—just be sure to keep things thick enough that the vitamin C will stay in suspension.
Silicone gel forms the bulk of the formulation, diluting the vitamin C and thickening the formulation so the powdered vitamin C stays in suspension. It’s a crystal clear, silky gel that is ultra lightweight and slippy, meaning the end formulation glides across the skin beautifully and doesn’t feel greasy.
My silicone gel is from TKB Trading, and it’s primarily ultra-light Cyclopentasiloxane that’s thickened into a gel with Dimethicone/Vinyl Dimethicone Crosspolymer. You could definitely use a different gelled cyclomethicone ingredient instead (Lotion Crafter and Making Cosmetics both sell some sort of gelled cyclopentasiloxane ingredient—refer the Humblebee & Me DIY Encyclopedia entry on Silicone Gel for links). If the gel you purchase is thicker than mine (watch the video to get an idea!) you may want to shift the ratio of silicone gel to liquid ester so your final product isn’t a stiff paste.
If you can’t get a silicone gel you’ll need some sort of ultra-lightweight, water-free gel/paste/soft solid to suspend the vitamin C in. I’m afraid I don’t have any readily available suggestions for this, especially if you want something natural. (Aloe vera gel is not water free—it’s almost entirely water and will absolutely not work for this formulation).
It looks like The Ordinary’s water-free vitamin C formulation uses Versagel® MN 750 T or Versagel® MN 1600 T. Those ingredients are part of the same line as the popular Versagel® gloss base (that’s Versagel® ME 750), but much lighter and less tacky. I’ve never seen Versagel® MN 750 T or Versagel® MN 1600 T for sale to home crafters. I did try a couple versions of this formulation using Versagel® ME 750 gloss base to thicken it and I was not a fan—it was heavy and sticky and (unsurprisingly) felt like I was spreading lip gloss all over my face. I don’t recommend taking that approach. All the ingredients in the Versagel® line are some sort of emollient that is gelled with a blend of Ethylene/Propylene/Styrene Copolymer and Butylene/Ethylene/Styrene Copolymer; the one I believe The Ordinary is using is based around Isononyl Isononanoate, a lightweight ester. Other Versagel® products that could work for this formulation (if you can find them) are: ML (C12-15 alkyl benzoate), HSQ (C13–15 Alkane), SQ (Squalane), MD (Isododecane), MC (Isohexadecane), and MP (Isopropyl palmitate). You can learn more with this helpful PDF from Penreco, the makers of Versagel®.
You could try a blend of lightweight esters thickened into a soft balm with something like C10-18 Triglycerides (Butter Pearls) and/or Cetyl Alcohol. I have not tried this approach. I recommend trying to keep the base as light and slippy as possible—I’ve made heavier, more occlusive versions of this formulation and really didn’t enjoy them. It is also very important that the base you use can suspend the vitamin C so it is properly diluted. Do not use a liquid that will let the L-ascorbic acid powder settle out and require shaking before each use.
Want to watch this project instead of read it?
How can I adjust the concentration of vitamin C?
23% is quite a high concentration of vitamin C; if you are new to using L-ascorbic acid I recommend reducing the concentration of it in this formulation to reduce tingling and irritation potential. I don’t experience any tingling with this formulation, but I’ve been using a 23% L-ascorbic acid formulation regularly for over 6 years. I definitely experienced tingling when I first started using The Ordinary’s 23% product! I don’t recommend using more—23% is plenty!
Here are some variations on the formulation featuring lower concentrations of L-ascorbic acid and proportionately higher concentrations of the other two ingredients to keep the formulation in balance:
- 3% L-ascorbic acid, 21% isoamyl cocoate, 76% silicone gel
- 5% L-ascorbic acid, 21% isoamyl cocoate, 74% silicone gel
- 10% L-ascorbic acid, 20% isoamyl cocoate, 70% silicone gel
- 15% L-ascorbic acid, 19% isoamyl cocoate, 66% silicone gel
- 20% L-ascorbic acid, 18% isoamyl cocoate, 62% silicone gel
Does this formulation need a preservative?
No; there’s no water in this formulation, so it doesn’t need a preservative.
How long will this formulation last?
Thanks to the water-free nature of this formulation, and the fact that the base ingredients are very stable, this formulation should easily last more than a year.
How can I scale this formulation up or down?
Want to watch this project instead of read it?
Easy DIY Vitamin C Suspension
Using a precise scale, weigh all the ingredients for the base into a beaker. Stir thoroughly to combine. Once the mixture is uniform, package it up!
A 1 oz jar is a very easy way to package this formulation, but a soft squeeze tube makes for much easier dispensing. I packaged mine in 2-dram HDPE bottles with a pointed dropper top using a syringe, and that works well for dispensing. I ended up needing 3.5 of them for this 30g (1.06oz) batch; if you had a 1 oz version of this bottle (or something similar) that would also be a great option. A dark or opaque bottle would be the best choice if you have one, but as this formulation is anhydrous it’s not as important as it is with a hydrous L-ascorbic acid formulation.
You can also weigh the ingredients into a plastic bag; smoosh to combine, and then you can snip off a corner to pipe the suspension into its packaging.
To use this formulation, mix a small amount (about half of a pea-sized amount) in your palm with a mild skincare product that contains some water, and massage that mixture into your face.
Start with less than you think you need, especially if you’re new to using l-ascorbic acid in your skincare routine! The mixing product can be a lotion, serum, toner, or even just a splash of tap water—we just want to get the vitamin C to dissolve for a smoother experience. This also makes it easier to use less, reducing the potential for irritation, because you’ll have plenty of product to spread around your face without feeling like you have to go back for more. I’ve been using my Brighten & Boost Facial Serum lately and that works wonderfully! I wouldn’t use an AHA, salicylic acid, or retinol product for this step in the interest of keeping the irritation potential as low as possible.
I typically apply my vitamin C as the first step after cleansing, and then follow up with a lotion or oil-based serum. I usually apply my vitamin C in the morning (where it can help boost sunscreen performance), saving other potentially irritating products like my lactic acid solution for the evening.
Shelf Life & Storage
Because this product does not contain any water, it does not require a broad-spectrum preservative (broad spectrum preservatives ward off microbial growth, and microbes require water to live—no water, no microbes!). Kept reasonably cool and dry, it should last at least a year or two..
As always, be aware that making substitutions will change the final product. While these swaps won’t break the formulation, you will get a different final product than I did.
- As I’ve provided this formulation in percentages as well as grams you can easily calculate it to any size using a simple spreadsheet as I’ve explained in this post. As written in grams, this formulation will make 30g, which is approximately 25mL.
- To learn more about the ingredients used in this formulation, including why they’re included and what you can substitute them with, please visit the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia. It doesn’t have everything in it yet, but there’s lots of good information there! If I have not given a specific substitution suggestion in this list please look up the ingredient in the encyclopedia before asking.
- Do not replace the l-ascorbic acid; this ingredient is absolutely key to this formulation!
- You can use a different lightweight liquid ester instead of isoamyl cocoate. Options include C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Isoamyl laurate, Coco-Caprylate, and Neossance® Hemisqualane.
- You can use a different gelled cyclopentasiloxane ingredient; you may want to shift the balance between the ester and the gel if the gel you’re using is stiffer/thicker than mine.
- If you don’t have/can’t get a gelled cyclopentasiloxane ingredient, you’l need a different water-free, lightweight, gelled base ingredient(s). The skin feel of this ingredient (or blend of ingredients) is really important as it is 60% of the formulation! Please read the full post for more discussion and ideas.