Adventures in DIY: Vitamin C + E + Ferulic Acid Serum Part 1

There are only so many times I can rewrite this.  I've been working on this for months now, and it keeps not being right.  Either way, it's time to put my money where my mouth is and show you how I DIY a complete Vitamin C serum.  I was initially just going to do a simple 8-ingredient recipe, followed by the more complex one that I'm currently using, but that's silly and repetitive.  And yes, I said 8 ingredients.  These aren't your amateur water and pinch of L-AA serums.  It's DIY week on Holy Snails!

Note:  This recipe took a lot of time, money, and work to develop.  Please be respectful and do not redistribute this (especially without credit).  This is meant for personal use only, not for commercial or profit.  It is provided for free, so please show some consideration or I will not be able to provide future recipes.

Adventures in DIY:  Vitamin C E + Ferulic Acid Serum

But Can't I Just Do Water + L-AA?

From Tumblr.  This is a Supernatural post.
I mean, yeah, technically you can.  But I don't recommend it.  Because you'll have these problems:

  • pH:  This is just acid in water, and will have to be adjusted or risk irritation/chemical burn
  • Preservatives:  Yes, you need a preservative.
  • Stability:  Vitamin E and Ferulic Acid greatly stabilizes and enhances Vitamin C
  • Irritation/Ineffectiveness:  If you do not use a digital scale accurate to 0.01 g, and instead use teaspoons to measure, you run the risk of measuring over or under the desired amount, which can cause irritation or be too little to be effective.
  • Consistency:  Not as big of a deal as the others, but just water + L-AA is too watery for some

From Tumblr.

The gold standard for a good Vitamin C serum is L-Ascorbic acid, between 15-20%, combined with 1% Tocopherol (Vitamin E) and 0.5-1% Ferulic Acid.  The problem starts, however, when you realize that each of those amazing ingredients require a different solvent.  So for L-Ascorbic Acid, you can just use water.  But Tocopherol is oil-soluble, so you need an emulsifier.  And then Ferulic Acid is pretty much only soluble in either ethanol or glycols.  That's 3 actives, 3 solvents, a preservative, and a pH adjuster.  So yes, to make the simplest possible, but complete CE+Ferulic Acid serum, you need a minimum of 8 ingredients.

Source unknown, probably Tumblr.
Beyond those, you need proper supplies, including a digital scale, pH strips, pipettes, spatulas, and bottles.  I know it sounds like a huge pain.  I know there are a lot of things to consider.  I know it can definitely seem daunting if you don't have a background in chemistry or ...baking.  (I'm serious.)  But it is totally worth it, I promise!

Why Should You DIY?

I would say because it's cheap, but that's an outright lie.  I've spent nearly $200 in DIY materials.  (Not just to make a Vitamin C serum!  For lots of other DIY projects.)  The more correct statement would be it's much more cost-effective.  I can almost guarantee you can't find a similar product to one you can make at home for nearly the same price.  In fact, you definitely can't with L-Ascorbic Acid serums, because Skinceuticals (~$125/bottle) has a patent on the combination of CE+Ferulic and pH range of 2.5-3, which definitely explains the lack of effective dupes on the market.

Can you imagine using a 30 ml bottle of expensive Vitamin C on your body?  How quickly would that bottle be drained to the last drop?  I don't have that kind of money, but with DIY, I can reap the benefits of Vitamin C all over my body without selling a kidney.  I have a baby, y'all.  I've got stretch marks.  I've got hyperpigmentation outside of my face.

Beyond that, you can customize to your heart's content (almost).  Want to add some sea kelp bioferment, the "secret ingredient" in the schmancy La Mer line?  Done.  How about some brightening Licorice Root extract?  Um, yes please.  Don't like a watery mixture?  Thicken it up with Hyaluronic Acid, Glycerin, or just plain Xanthan Gum until you get a consistency you like.  Since you're the formulator, you can go with a plain, bare bones serum or make it into a rockin' actives powerhouse.

Rockin' it.  From Tumblr.
Not only that, but do you know how much green tea extract, hyaluronic acid, or tea tree oil is actually in that fancy, expensive serum?  With DIY, you control nearly every aspect of your product, especially the concentration.  Add to that the bonus that you learn so much more about what goes into skincare and on your face.

But First...

Trust me, I want more people to DIY.  DIY serums are easy, just a little tedious.  However, you have to understand you're not working with a Playdoh set or a baking soda volcano here.  These are undiluted chemicals, and some can cause a lot of irritation if improperly used.  You must take basic safety precautions, like wearing proper eye protection and gloves, not reusing the glassware for food purposes, and pH and patch testing before using the final product.  If you cannot or will not do this, you do not need to be doing this kind of DIY.  Avocado and honey masks?  Sure, go crazy.  Share some recipes with me, as I'm always down for a good mask.  But don't go dusting L-Ascorbic Acid powder straight on to your face.

0.01g Digital Scale: $8-12, Calibration Weight: $3-7 (both on Amazon)

Storing Your Serum

Your Vitamin C serum must be stored properly, or it will oxidize.  It doesn't matter if it was made fresh - if you store it in an open jar, it is worthless.  If you put it into a spray bottle assembly, make sure the spring for the spray mechanism doesn't touch the liquid inside.  Metal + Vitamin C = Nope.  Unnecessary chelation (binding of metal ions).  This is also why you need to use Distilled Water and not just regular tap, as the water has metal ions from your pipes.  I recommend the following bottles:

WHAT:  Glass Dropper Bottle (typically Brown, Blue, or Violet)
PROS:  Inexpensive, easy to find, have only two parts, easy to dispense
CONS:  Exposes serum with every use, risking contamination, spill, and oxidation.
Where to Buy:  Amazon, eBay, I've also found them at my local health food store in the essential oils section, and apparently Vape shops carry them as well.

WHAT:  Opaque airless bottles with viewing panels
PROS:  Oh man, these are marvelous.  Airless system, so less preservatives, less exposure, less risk of spilling product.   Travel friendly, much more attractive packaging.
CONS:  That's 5 different pieces per bottle to sanitize each time.  Also, 1 of 3 bottles I ordered, the pump assembly was broken and the store just ignored my complaint.  Worst con is the pump assemble shoots the serum out, often splashing off your hand and exfoliating the mirror instead, and you can't dispense just a small amount - it's a full pump or nothing.  More expensive, also.
Where to Buy:  I've only found these on Skin Essential Actives.  I've seen other airless pumps on eBay and Amazon, but none that look like these.  Shipping is pretty steep, so if you're going to use SEA, you might want to pick up a couple of other products there as well to make it worth it.

Where to Buy Everything

For materials like pipettes, scales, weigh boats, etc, you can find them on Amazon and eBay for pretty affordable prices.  For the ingredients, I have used Lotion Crafter and Skin Essential Actives, and they have great prices, although shipping for both can be a bit of a punch to the gut.  Lotion Crafter ships from within the US, so it's pretty fast.  SEA is based in Taiwan, but ships via EMS so it's still not too bad.

WHY is UPS Ground so expensive?  I can get things shipped from the other side of the world for less.

The Recipes

Note:  These recipes are made for glass dropper bottles.  If you use the airless pump bottles, the recipes will obviously still work, but you can also drop the preservative Optiphen down to 0.5% if desired, which will make the smell much less noticeable.  Also, these recipes are for 1 oz / 30 ml bottles.  If you wish to make them in different volumes, adjust as necessary using a good batch size calculator (Go to File->Save A Copy to make your own).



Ingredient % Grams (g) Purpose
1% Allantoin Water 23.5 6.66 Solvent for Vitamin C, anti-irritant
L-Ascorbic Acid 15 4.25 Vitamin C
Sea Kelp Bioferment 20 5.67 Nutrient rich gel consistency to thicken solution
Propylene Glycol 7 1.98 Solvent for Ferulic Acid
Licorice Root Extract 5 1.42 Soothes and brightens skin
Sea Buckthorn Oil 5 1.42 High oleic oil with EFAs and Vitamin E
Glycerin 5 1.42 Humectant, thickens solution
1% Hyaluronic Acid Stock 5 1.42 Humectant, thickens solution
Sodium Lactate 5 1.42 NMF, brightens, adjusts pH
Polysorbate 80 6 1.70 Emulsifier
Tocopherol 1 0.28 Vitamin E, stabilizes Vitamin C and increases photoprotectivity
Optiphen 1 0.28 Full spectrum preservative
Citric Acid in Distilled Water 1 0.28 Adjust final pH within 2.5-3
Ferulic Acid 0.5 0.14 Stabilizes Vitamin C and increases photoprotectivity

Allantoin is a great anti-inflammatory ingredient, and is nice to have in skincare products, but it's an evil asshole to work with.  Its usage rate is typically 0.5% up to 2%, but I cannot get it to stay at 2% in a stable solution.  Typically, if I boil it for a while at 2%, once it cools down, the slightest agitation will cause it to product little glass-like shards as it recrystallizes.  I have much better luck at 1%, and it's even easier if you drop it to 0.5%, but it still involves heating it up.  So what I like to do is I'll make a large stock solution (typically a 30 ml bottle) of 1% Allantoin, then use it in place of distilled water in my recipe.  So while it says it's 1% Allantoin water here, the reality is there's only 0.0031% Allantoin in this solution.

The same with the 1% Hyaluronic Acid stock.  HA is very easy to use, but the problem is it takes about half an hour for it to dissolve in your distilled water.  So some people, to save time, just make a big stock solution (I use a 30 ml bottle) at 1%.  It says 1% HA here, but there's only 0.0005% Hyaluronic Acid in this serum.


Ingredient%Grams (g)Purpose
Distilled Water72.520.55Solvent for Vitamin C
L-Ascorbic Acid154.25Vitamin C
Propylene Glycol71.98Solvent for Ferulic Acid
Sodium Lactate20.57NMF, brightens, adjusts pH
Polysorbate 8010.28Emulsifier
Tocopherol10.28Vitamin E, stabilizes Vitamin C and increases photoprotectivity
Optiphen10.28Full spectrum preservative
Ferulic Acid0.50.14Stabilizes Vitamin C and increases photoprotectivity

From Tumblr.

Yes, the simplest I could make this recipe was 8 ingredients.  You could shrink it even further, but I don't recommend it.  My more complicated recipe fits my skin and lifestyle.  In the mornings, I rinse my face with water (no cleanser), apply my Vitamin C, wait a little bit, and then apply moisturizer and sunscreen (no toner/essence/ampoule).  So it makes sense for me to load a lot of other things like humectants into my serum, but you might do a 7-10 step routine in the morning, and can leave out or substitute some of the ingredients.

I like to do 15% L-AA, but feel free to bring it all the way to 20%.  Just make sure it's above 10%, as that's the starting spot for collagen production.  I used Sea Buckthorn Oil, but you may want to look up the differences between oleic and linoleic oils and pick a different one or omit oils entirely.  Ferulic Acid is very soluble in ethanol, which is why you'll see some DIY recipes with vodka, but I'd rather not, which is why I use propylene glycol.  If you wish to use vodka/ethanol/high-proof alcohol, you will need less than the amount I have listed for propylene glycol.  (I will do a followup post to this during DIY week with recipe variations and how to modify other recipes yourself.)

Sodium lactate is something you typically don't see in DIY Vitamin C recipes, but I would almost call it a necessity.  It's a Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF), like Sodium PCA, Hyaluronic Acid, and Glycerin.  In fact, it's second only to hyaluronic acid in its ability to hold water.  It is the sodium salt of lactic acid, a very popular, gentler AHA; and there is some anecdotal evidence (and possibly a patent) that indicates it has a synergistic relationship with L-Ascorbic Acid, able to brighten complexion even better than just L-AA alone.  But that's not really enough to make it a necessity, right?  Well, the truth is if you made this serum with just 7 ingredients, you'd still have to add an 8th ingredient.  The pH would be too low, and you'd have to adjust it back up.  The most common ingredient used?  Sodium bicarbonate AKA baking soda.  You'd only need a pinch, so let's keep the boos and hisses down.  But it's not doing anything for you, is it?  So why not throw in something that will adjust the pH for you AND have all these other benefits?  The stuff is pretty dirt cheap too.

Lastly, Optiphen.  It's a preservative consisting of phenoxyethanol in caprylyl glycol, so for those who care, it is paraben and formaldehyde free.  And yes, it is necessary.  The purpose of having tocopherol and ferulic acid is to stabilize and enhance Vitamin C's antioxidant and photoprotective abilities, but the purpose of Optiphen is to preserve the entire solution.  It's the difference between your batteries running out of juice versus your battery actively leaking acid.  You need a preservative, unless you want to keep it in your fridge and make it fresh every day or two.  A 1 oz bottle used once daily lasts around 3 months or longer even.  Keep in mind - would you eat 3 day old food?  If not, don't use 3 day old preservative-free serum.  And definitely not 3 month-old preservative-free serum. 

Anyway, stay tuned for Part 2, which I promise will not take as long to arrive.  This post is just getting too long.