Commonly known as vitamin C, ascorbic acid is a nutrient that is vital to the overall health of the body. Humans are one of the only living mammal species that cannot produce vitamin C on their own. Instead of manufacturing its own supply of ascorbic acid, the human body typically obtains vitamin C from consuming foods that contain the nutrient, such as papayas, bell peppers, broccoli, pineapple and oranges.
The benefits of ascorbic acid for the body were known long before the vitamin was ever discovered. As early as the 17th century, the European physician John Woodall realized that sailors with poor diets were susceptible to a potentially fatal disease known as scurvy. Woodall determined that the juice of lemons, a fruit high in ascorbic acid, helped prevent scurvy from developing.
Other physicians confirmed the doctor’s findings in the centuries that followed, but it wasn't until 1907 that science had come far enough to make it possible to attempt to isolate the ingredient that was useful for preventing scurvy from citrus fruits. By 1931, a team at the University of Pittsburgh aided by a Hungarian physiologist finally succeeded in discovering ascorbic acid and proving that it was this elusive anti-scurvy ingredient.
Research continued and established that ascorbic acid performs a number of important jobs in the body. One of the most crucial roles that the vitamin plays is protective in nature. The human body is constantly being bombarded with highly reactive molecules known as free radicals. These molecules have the potential to cause oxidative damage to the body on a cellular level, and this damage is what primarily causes the body to age. Studies also show that oxidative damage from free radicals can even contribute to the formation of certain types of cancers.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant, a substance that prevents the oxidation of the body's cells. Ascorbic acid acts like a shield, limiting how much damage free radicals can do to the body. The protective abilities of ascorbic acid are not just limited to the internal organs and tissues in the body either; applying a product that contains ascorbic acid topically to the skin can help protect the complexion from the aging effects of free radicals. As a result, ascorbic acid is a popular ingredient in anti-aging skin care products.
In addition to its role as an antioxidant, ascorbic acid is also involved in many chemical reactions in the human body. These reactions produce a number of results that are important for building healthy tissue and providing the body with energy. One reaction that ascorbic acid is vital to is the production of collagen, a protein found in skin and gives it firmness and strength. Without vitamin C, collagen protein cells would not have the proper shape necessary to support the skin tissue.
Clinical studies have shown that applying skin care products that contain ascorbic acid helps to boost collagen levels in the tissue. As we age, collagen production naturally slows down, causing a gradual weakening of the skin tissue that results in sagging and makes the skin more susceptible to wrinkling. Because ascorbic acid boosts collagen levels, the vitamin can actually cause the skin to plump and regain elasticity, so that fine lines and wrinkles are less noticeable.
Ascorbic acid is also a common ingredient in skin brightening or whitening products that are used to address hyperpigmentation caused by the sun, hormone imbalances and other factors. Doctors and medical scientists have yet to determine precisely how ascorbic acid lightens the skin, but many believe that vitamin C increases levels of a substance known as glutathione in the skin tissue. Glutathione interferes with the production of the skin pigment melanin and causes a natural lightening of the skin.
Vitamin C can be manufactured in laboratories by a variety of different methods, and in some cases, the nutrient that is produced is different in structure from ascorbic acid. These alternate forms of vitamin C are called by different names, such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. Studies have found that only ascorbic acid or l-ascorbic acid is useful as an ingredient in skin care products. Consumers should always read the labels of vitamin C skin care products carefully to ensure that they are purchasing a product that contains actual ascorbic or l-ascorbic acid, rather than a less effective version of the ingredient.