What to Look for When It Comes to Beauty Vitamins

Everything you need to know about getting healthy, gorgeous skin.

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You've been hearing about the virtues of vitamins since you chomped your first Flintstones chewable, but do you know all they can do in grown-up beauty products? Creams and serums infused with key nutrients help your skin look its healthiest, derms say. (We're talking tighter, brighter, softer, and smoother.) Get ready for a lesson in the ABCs of a gorgeous complexion.

Vitamin A: The Gold Standard Anti-Ager

This little guy is a multitasker, softening wrinkles, fighting acne, and improving skin texture. Stacks of studies back up its effectiveness, which is why different forms of the vitamin, like prescription retinoic acid gels or OTC creams with retinol, are many docs' go-to for looking clear and smooth.

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"Nothing works quite as well at stimulating new collagen to help boost the overall structure of your skin," says Hadley King, MD, a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University.

The vitamin's other big bonus: It increases skin-cell turnover, bringing a healthy freshness to the surface.

Call these vitamins a shield against the environmental assaults of the world.
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What to Look For:

Prescription creams aren't the only way to go here: A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that an OTC retinol worked as well as at least one Rx in reducing wrinkles and skin roughness. When you're in the beauty aisle, scan ingredients labels for retinol, retinaldehyde, or retinyl palmitate, and go with a product that contains at least 0.5 percent, like Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 ($60, skinceuticals.com) or Paula's Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster ($50, paulaschoice.com). You want to find the most potent level your skin can tolerate, says New York-based dermatologist Neil Sadick, MD, so if you don't experience any irritation, you can ask your doc to graduate you to a stronger and potentially more effective prescription formula like tretinoin, tazarotene, or adapalene.

How to Use It:

Vitamin A can be irritating to your skin, so start by smoothing on a pea-size amount two or three times a week. (Use it at night, since UV light breaks down the ingredient.) If that doesn't lead to a red face, gradually up the frequency until it's an every night thing. Following with your moisturizer can help minimize any negative effects; so can waiting until your face is dry before putting it on.

"Damp skin actually absorbs the ingredient better, which may sound good but can increase the odds of irritation," explains King.

What's the Deal With Vitamin K?

Creams for everything from spider veins to bruises to under-eye circles list K as an ingredient, but there isn't a ton of hard science to back up its effectiveness. That said, preliminary research is promising: In one study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 47 percent of users reported that their dark circles improved when they used a cream that combined K with vitamins A, E, and C. Find that ingredient combo in Quintessence Skin Science Clarifying Under Eye Serum Capsules ($74.50, dermaproducts4u.com). Sadick also says his patients have had good results using it to help heal bruises. The vitamin is pretty gentle, so your skin shouldn't get upset if you want to try it.

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The B Vitamins: Soothing Superstars

The wrong place to store a serum or cream infused with vitamins? Your bathroom. Pick a cool, dry home, like your nightstand.

These antioxidants are overachievers when it comes to calming and hydrating, which is why they're especially good for easily aggravated skin.

"The B vitamins you find in beauty products are terrific anti-inflammatory ingredients, decreasing the redness that's usually associated with acne and rosacea," says dermatologist Meryl Blecker Joerg, MD, an assistant clinical professor at the Cosmetic Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "They also help to boost your skin's protective barrier to seal in plumping moisture."

What to Look For:

The two most common B vitamins used in creams are vitamin B3 (called niacin, niacinamide, or nicotinamide) and vitamin B5 (listed as panthenol), says Joerg. Panthenol is found in many creams and anti-agers because it's a top-notch moisturizer, drawing hydration into the deeper layers of the skin. Find it in Kiehl's Panthenol Protein Moisturizing Face Cream ($26, kiehls.com). If it's more about redness and irritation for you, look for a cream with B3 like Olay Active Botanicals Moisturizing Day Lotion ($15, olay.com).

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How to Use Them:

To hydrate skin and bring down redness, slather on B3 cream twice a day, says one study. Even better: Layer it under sunscreen. Your SPF shields skin from sun damage, while antioxidant B3 battles any free radicals (unstable molecules that can damage skin) generated by UV light, says Joerg. As with all moisturizers, a lotion with B5 should be rubbed onto slightly damp skin to lock in hydration.

Vitamin C: The Damage Fighter

Superstar antioxidant C can help neutralize the daily free radical assault that comes from sunshine and pollution, says King. What makes it extra special: Unlike other antioxidants, vitamin C plays a key role in collagen production, triggering your skin to churn out even more of this plumping protein. Some research suggests that it can also help wounds heal faster.

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What to Look For:

Since vitamin C breaks down easily when exposed to light or air, try to find a product that comes in an opaque bottle with a pump. Then scan the ingredients. Ideally, you want a serum that contains the most active form of C, called ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid, like MyChelle Dermaceuticals Perfect C Serum ($44, mychelle.com). Bonus points if there's some vitamin E in there too, which can boost C's UV-protecting benefits. Better yet, look for a formula with C, E, and ferulic acid, like Marie Veronique Vitamins C+E+Ferulic Serum ($90, marieveronique.com). Put these three ingredients together and the anti-aging effect is eight times greater than C alone, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

How to Use It:

To shield skin throughout the day, use a C product as part of your morning routine, says Joerg. Spread on a pea-size amount, wait five minutes for it to seep into your skin, and layer on a moisturizer with sunscreen. Again, since C is such a finicky ingredient, store your cream somewhere cool and dry — not in your bathroom. And if you notice that its color has changed, toss it.

Look for products in opaque jars—they help keep temperamental ingredients fresh.

Vitamin E: The Helpful Booster

It's a great moisturizer that can also aid in repairing your skin's protective outer barrier, but E's main claim to fame is its antioxidant power. Like vitamin C, it may help prevent the sun damage that degrades collagen and elastin. What it can't do? Make scars disappear — that's a total myth.

What to Look For:

You'll most often find vitamin E listed as alpha tocopherol or tocopheryl acetate. Studies show that you don't need a ton of E in a product to get its benefits, so there's no need to worry if it falls near the bottom of the ingredients list or to buy one of those pure vitamin E oils. Two we like are Malin + Goetz Vitamin E Face Moisturizer ($46, malinandgoetz.com) and Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer with Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 15 ($22, amazon.com).

How to Use It:

Vitamin E is versatile and stable, so use it as needed. Because some people may experience irritation from the ingredient in high doses, you should test a new product on a tucked-away area like your inner arm before you rub it all over your face — a good idea with any cream or lotion.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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