Skin penetration of Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid): Part I

Today I wanted to look at a research paper primarily led by Dr. Sheldon R. Pinnell. He is one of the founders of Skinceuticals and contributed much of the early research on the use of Vitamin C as ascorbic acid on skin. He and his group also discovered the synergistic effect of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Ferulic acid – which is commonly used in many products on the market today.

The data from this paper is often quoted in marketing material for Vitamin C serums, but one extremely important piece of information is often left out – the data was collected from pigs, white Yorkshire pigs to be exact.

Many people also have ethical concerns when it comes to the use of animals in cosmetic research. Synthetic and lab grown human skin equivalents are being researched and tested which will one day replace the use of animal as well as human testing in cosmetics.

It should be clear that human skin and pig skin are not the same, but they do have similar properties which is why it is often used in experiments. However, one should never assume that data from a pig can be assumed to be the same for a human. The movement and deposition of chemicals often differs between human and pig skin.

From my searches, I haven’t been able to find similar research performed on humans. This paper in particular has led to some of the often quoted “rules” about ascorbic acid.

“Ascorbic acid must have a pH below 3.5 for effective penetration.”

Pinnell and his group tested a 15% ascorbic acid solution adjusted to different pHs ranging from 2 to 5. The 15% ascorbic acid solutions also contained 2% zinc sulfate, 0.5% bioflavonoids, 1% hyaluronic acid, and 0.1% citrate.

While the control situation wasn’t described it’s likely either the vehicle (product without the ascorbic acid) or a water solution was applied to the skin. The control measurement shows that there is some inherent levels of ascorbic acid already present in the skin from the diet.

The test solutions were applied to the pig skin using a Hill Top Chamber. A Hill Top Chamber is a small and round disk which is placed on the surface of the skin, the product is placed in the chamber or a piece of fabric is soaked in the testing material, and the entire chamber is then sealed. This reduces loss of product from evaporation and is a common method of performing occlusive test patches.

The ascorbic acid solutions at pH 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, and 5.0 were performed on three pigs, however the control, pH 2, and 4.5 were only performed on two pigs.

The Hill Top Chamber was soaked with 0.2 mL of the ascorbic acid solution then sealed for 24 hours. After this period of occlusion, the skin washed then stripped of the stratum corneum and then small pieces of the skin was removed and tested for ascorbic acid content.

As you can see from the data, the amount of ascorbic acid found in the skin was much higher in ascorbic acid solutions at pH 3.5, 3.0, 2.5, and 2.0. The researchers theorize that it is due to the pKa of ascorbic acid which is 4.2. When the pH of a solution containing ascorbic acid is lower than its pKa more of the ascorbic acid will be protonated. Protonated ascorbic acid is neutrally charged which may allow it to enter the skin more easily.

It’s important to notice the error bars on the amount of ascorbic acid absorbed at pH 2.0. There is considerable deviation from the mean in the results even though it was only tested on 2 subjects. More test subjects would provide a clearer idea of how much ascorbic acid would penetrate at pH 2 on an average population of pigs.

Statistical differences also weren’t calculated between the data points, for example it’s difficult to tell from the way that the data is presented if there is a change in ascorbic acid content between the control, pH 4.0, 4.5, and 5.0 – even if they look different on the graph. Likewise, it’s difficult to tell if there is an increase in ascorbic acid penetration between pH 3.0 and pH 2.5 – despite the trend with pH 2.0 pushing you towards that inference. It’s likely that there is a statistically significant difference between absorption between pH 3.5 and 3.0, but a larger study would provide us  with more confident answers.

So based on this data, many further studies and brands have assumed that a pH below 3.5 results in considerable more skin penetration of ascorbic acid on humans – despite these results being performed on pigs, and relative low strength of the study. If the reason why ascorbic acid is more easily absorbed into the skin is due to the pKa then this would likely hold true for humans as well.

This assumption is often presented as fact, which is misleading. It also doesn’t take into account other factors present in a cosmetic product, such as penetration enhancers. Encapsulation, surfactants, and solvents could increase (or decrease) the amount of ascorbic acid absorbed into the skin regardless of the product’s pH.

In this experiment, the stratum corneum was removed before measurements of ascorbic acid to test for deep penetration of ascorbic acid. It’s possible that some of the benefits conferred by topical application of ascorbic acid aren’t facilitated by deep penetration, the antioxidant and photoprotective effect of ascorbic acid may still occur when it is present in or on the stratum corneum. Other benefits like reduction of hyperpigmentation and an increase in collagen production are likely dependent on penetration past the stratum corneum.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find further studies on humans or otherwise to provide answers to these questions.

“Ascorbic acid serums must be at least 10% to be effective”

After the first experiment of testing 15% ascorbic acid with different pHs, Pinnell and his group tested how concentration of ascorbic acid affects skin penetration. This time they tested 7 ascorbic acid solutions with varying concentrations all at pH 3.2. The concentrations of the rest of the formulation are assumed to be the same as the previous experiment.

The ascorbic acid solutions were applied in the same manner, with a Hill Top Chamber for 24 hours, followed by washing, stripping, and then assessment.

The maximum amount of ascorbic acid penetration was seen when 20% ascorbic acid at pH 3.2 was used.

All concentrations were tested on 3 pigs, and there is quite a bit of deviation from mean between absorption among the 3 pigs tested. This makes it difficult to assess the true difference in absorption between a 10% and 15% ascorbic acid, and a 15% and 20% ascorbic acid.

Absorption also seemed to peak at 20%, the 25% ascorbic acid solution penetrated less than the 20%, and the 30% even less so. The researchers did not explore or hypothesize on why this occured, and I’ve been unable to find an answer in any later research as well.

While 20% ascorbic acid certainly led to the greatest increase in levels of ascorbic acid, the 5% solution still increased ascorbic acid levels in the pig skin by about 6 fold.

It’s very important to remember that the way that this experiment was performed does not mimic the way that ascorbic acid solutions are often applied to the skin. With the Hill Top Chamber, the solvent’s (in this case water) evaporation is reduced – whereas when we apply it to the skin the solvent evaporates. What this means is that the kinetics of ascorbic acid penetration into the skin may not be the same.

For example, if half of the solvent of a 10% ascorbic acid solution evaporates, it is equivalent to a 20% ascorbic acid solution – the total amount of ascorbic acid by mass is the same, but the concentration has changed. This may mean that we could see a different maximum absorption by concentration in an experiment where the solvent was allowed to evaporate the way that it is often applied.

Human clinical trials with “low” ascorbic acid concentrations, 3% ascorbic acid cream and a 5% ascorbic acid cream, were able to show statistically significant improvements on measurements of photodamage and photoageing in their study groups.

Another thing many people hold on to is the concept that their products must be working at “maximum efficiency”, unfortunately this is unrealistic and there’s going to be variations in the amount of ascorbic acid that penetrates your skin with each application – even the amount that you apply to your skin will vary each time. This is why good cosmetic studies are performed over a longer period of time.

For example, if we look at the 20% concentration, the pig skin concentration of ascorbic acid increased to about 1100 pmol of ascorbic acid per mg of pig skin, which is about 0.19 μg ascorbic acid per mg of pig skin. 1.0 mg of a 20% ascorbic acid (w/w) contains about 1135589.37 pmol of ascorbic acid, if that helps give you a sense of the “efficiency”. In these experiments, 200 μL or 0.2 mL solution was used in total for each application, which contains about 227117874.1767 pmol of ascorbic acid if we assume density of the solution (w/w) is 1.

Higher concentrations of ascorbic acid may lead to more irritation (measured by skin redness or erythema), but I haven’t found any studies that looked at this specifically.

Continued in Skin penetration of Ascorbic Acid: Part II

Source: Pinnell, S. R., Yang, H. , Omar, M. , Riviere, N. M., DeBuys, H. V., Walker, L. C., Wang, Y. and Levine, M. (2001), Topical L‐Ascorbic Acid: Percutaneous Absorption Studies. Dermatologic Surgery, 27: 137-142. DOI: 10.1046/j.1524-4725.2001.00264.x