For more than half a century, people have taken Vitamin C to prevent and treat the common cold.
Despite little evidence, most people believe that Vitamin C will help them fight colds. As a result, the average person still stocks up on it every winter or chooses food products which are enriched with Vitamin C.
It could be possible that millions of people are wasting millions of dollars every year.
After reading this you’ll understand why people are very reluctant to give up their reliance on Vitamin C for dealing with the common cold.
Here are the best Vitamin C supplements on the market, ranked. Part 2 of this guide will break down what Vitamin C does and how a supplement can benefit your body.
Starting with our #1 recommendation:
It’s among the best-selling brands that you’ll find at Amazon.com and in person at drug stores and big box retailers.
As you might expect from a supplement with broad appeal, Doctor’s Best Vitamin C is a pretty standard vitamin C supplement. Sometimes, however, standard is just what you need. As the saying goes, “simple ‘ain’t easy.”
Each capsule provides 1000 mg of vitamin C, in a proprietary form known as Quali-C. There’s nothing fancy about this form; it’s really just ascorbic acid, but the company that supplies it guarantees its purity.
This is reflected in independent lab testing of Doctor’s Best Vitamin C. In analytical assays, its actual vitamin C content comes in at 1070 mg, just seven percent over the label listed amount. This means there is good quality control in the manufacturing process and you’re getting exactly what you pay for.
Moreover, the only other ingredient in the formulation is a cellulose capsule, which is vegetable-derived—good news for vegetarians and vegans who want to avoid animal-based gelatin capsules.
The quality, purity, and accuracy of the vitamin C content of Doctor’s Best Vitamin C earn it a spot at the top of the rankings.
The name alone tells you a lot about this supplement. It’s a pretty basic capsule that delivers 1000 mg of vitamin C. They are quite pure; the only ingredients other than ascorbic acid are gelatin and stearic acid.
The gelatin is bad news if you are a vegan or vegetarian, as it’s derived from animal sources, but this aside, just about everyone else can get on board with Twinlab C-1000 caps.
They’re very precise in their true amount of vitamin C, too. Independent lab testing determined that each capsule delivers 1050 mg of vitamin C, so only a 5% error, and it’s in your favor.
In terms of value (dollar cost per dose of vitamin C) it does quite well, too. The quality and value of this product is hard to beat unless you are dealing with loose powder vitamin C that you measure yourself, so if you don’t want to bother with the hassle of a scale and tedious, precise measurements, Twinlab C-1000 Caps are a great choice.
Bulk Supplements is a company that is widely known for their low cost, high quality philosophy. Bulk supplements sells its products in a loose powder form in a simple resealable foil bag, always in a highly purified form without any flavoring agents or adulterants.
That’s the case with their vitamin C supplement too. It’s 100% ascorbic acid—in independent lab testing, it easily lives up to its claim.
The advantage of this is that you can determine exactly how much you need, at what time, and in what format. Since ascorbic acid (the chemical name for vitamin C) is water soluble, you can dissolve the exact amount of vitamin C that you need in water, a protein shake, a smoothie, or pretty much any other liquid you want.
The downside, as with any powder-based supplement that needs to be measured in accurate amounts, is that you’ll need a micro scale to correctly measure your dosing.
With something like protein powder, where the bulk amount you’re consuming is very large, small errors associated with the size of the scoop are unimportant. But with vitamin C, where a typical dose is 300, 600, or 1000 milligrams, estimating quarter-teaspoons just isn’t going to cut it. To take full advantage of an inexpensive loose powder like Bulk Supplements Vitamin C, you’ll need to get a high quality scale, which will add to the initial sunk cost.
Of course, if you’ve already got a micro scale from using other loose powder supplements and you don’t mind taking the time to measure out the product, Bulk Supplements should be your number one choice.
Nature’s Bounty is a brand that you’d likely find at a brick and mortar drug store, and it is a best-seller online, too. Its vitamin C formulation is a tablet-based supplement that delivers 500 mg of vitamin C per dose.
In terms of other ingredients, the tablet form demands some binders, anti-caking agents, and excipients, so the ingredient list is a bit longer than usual.
It includes vegetable cellulose, silica, magnesium stearate, and stearic acid; these just act to hold the tablet together, but there are other supplements on the market that have managed to make quality supplements without these additives. Still, despite this very minor point, it’s a very solid supplement choice.
Nature’s Bounty Vitamin C scores very well on purity testing, with independent analytical testing determining that its actual vitamin C content was within four percent of its label-stated amount.
If you don’t want a massive dose of vitamin C, taking the 500 mg Nature’s Bounty vitamin C supplement is a good call. It provides readily-available vitamin C in an accurate and inexpensive manner.
Though it’s not a common brand, Solaray Vitamin C sells surprisingly well online. It provides its 1000 mg of vitamin C in three forms: traditional ascorbic acid, rose hips (an herbal extract rich in vitamin C), and acerola cherry, another fruit rich in vitamin C.
The intent with this type of design is to control the release of the vitamin C after it’s consumed. The ascorbic acid is absorbed quickly, while the stomach digests the rose hips and acerola cherry more slowly.
At least, this is how the company literature portrays it happening—there’s no independent verification of how this works. If the acidity of a normal vitamin C supplement upsets your stomach, it may be worth trying a slow release formula like Solaray Vitamin C.
Perhaps the lower concentration of pure ascorbic acid won’t change the acidity of your stomach as much.
One thing that is independently vetted, however, is its vitamin C content. According to analytical testing, the tablets actually contain 1060 mg of vitamin C per serving, which is quite good. That’s an error of only six percent, and its’ in your favor.
There’s also no funny business with strange or unnecessary inactive ingredients either, making Solaray Vitamin C a good call if you want a slow release formula.
Another among the big brands, Now Foods offers supplements starting with just about every letter of the alphabet. Vitamin C is no exception—Now Foods makes a 1000 mg vitamin C tablet that’s standard in most regards.
The purity of the ingredients is average; independent lab testing pegged its true vitamin C content at 928 mg per tablet. Though it’s disappointing to see a number lower than the advertised amount, this is still less than a ten percent difference between label-claimed and actual vitamin C content.
The only unusual listed ingredient is rose hips. This is an herbal extract from the rose plant, and is sometimes used to flavor foods and beverages.
Its efficacy is uncertain, though it may have a mild anti-inflammatory effect, as reported by a 2014 scientific article on non-surgical treatments for knee osteoarthritis (1).
Rose Hips do, however, function as a slow-release form of vitamin C. Whether this is desirable or productive is an unanswered question, but if high doses of vitamin C upset your stomach, the time release design is worth a try.
Practically a household name by now, Emergen-C comes in a flavored powder in individual packets that you can add to water or another drink to deliver 1000 mg of vitamin C per packet, along with several other vitamins and minerals aimed at boosting your immune system.
The other two notable vitamins and minerals delivered in major quantities in Emergen-C are vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. These are included in amounts of 10 mg (500% of your recommended daily intake) and 25 mcg (417% of recommended daily intake).
There are also small to moderate amounts of magnesium, zinc, manganese, and several of the other B-complex vitamins, but not enough to make a big difference, assuming your diet is in the ballpark of healthy.
Emergen-C is marketed as a fast-acting countermeasure for a cold, so these other vitamins and minerals could come in handy if you aren’t eating as much as you should be because of a sore throat or illness-related malaise.
It does transform a glass of water into, essentially, a vitamin-water like product, as each packet contains eight grams of carbohydrates, six of which are sugar.
Because of this sugar, Emergen-C is not a good choice for a daily vitamin C supplement—especially considering that fructose is the first ingredient listed!
As an occasional supplement to use if you get a cold, though, it should do its job.
Airborne is not quite the market juggernaut it used to be, but it’s still a well-selling vitamin C supplement. Like Emergen-C, it’s marketed as a countermeasure against mild illness.
It comes in tubes of individual tablets that you dissolve in water. As they dissolve, they bubble vigorously, much like an Alka-Seltzer, generating fizz and giving the drink a tart and acidic flavor.
Like with Emergen-C, Vitamin C is the main ingredient, with each tablet delivering 1000 mg of it. A notable difference is that Airborne does not include any B vitamins aside from riboflavin.
It does include a few minerals, like zinc (which has been connected with immune system function as well) and selenium.
Airborne Vitamin C also includes a proprietary blend of herbal extracts with supposed immune boosting properties. These include ginger, echinacea, and a number of rarer extracts. Again, the utility of these is unproven.
Disappointingly, Airborne also includes the controversial artificial sweetener acesulfamine potassium, as well as sucralose, sorbitol, and artificial flavoring. If you care about tested and well-vetted ingredients in your supplements, you might want to look elsewhere.
Though Vitafusion’s gummy vitamins are best sellers in several categories, they don’t always stack up when it comes to a rigorous analysis of their quality. How do their vitamin C gummies rank?
Unfortunately, not well. The quantity of vitamin C delivered is meager—each gummy contains only 120 mg of vitamin C, which is less than one-fifth the amount of several other supplements that are equally or more competitively priced.
There aren’t any real other ingredients to write home about; rose hips are included for flavoring and aromatics, but these are essentially gummy candies (1.5 grams of sugar per gummy) with some vitamin C added in.
Strangely, independent analytical testing in a laboratory showed that the gummies actually contain almost 75% more vitamin C per gummy than the label claims.
While this redeems the cost per serving a bit, it does not bode well for the quality control in Vitafusion Power C Gummies’ manufacturing process.
This vitamin C supplement is unusual because it does not deliver its vitamin C in the standard format of ascorbic acid. Instead, it uses a salt form, calcium ascorbate, which is this company’s patented formulation.
Each tablet delivers 500 mg of vitamin C, along with a 200 mg mixture of citrus fruit extracts.
The company claims that their vitamin C formulation is more effective at being absorbed and being released into the blood in a more constant way, but there’s no independent scientific verification of that.
Ascorbic acid, being highly water soluble, is readily absorbable by your body even by itself, so there’s no clear indication that absorption is even a problem for most people.
A bigger issue comes with purity testing—independent lab testing revealed that levels of arsenic, a toxic heavy metal contaminant, were above the 0.1 parts per million safety threshold set by the lab.
This alone lands Ester-C at the bottom of the list. No matter how good your supplement is, it needs to be free of toxic contaminants. There are far better products on the market that are less expensive and don’t fail toxic metal screenings.
Part 2: What is vitamin C and how does it benefit your body?
Unlike many urban health legends, the one about Vitamin C’s effect on the common cold is grounded in real science.
Where it all began: the Vitamin C revolution of the 70s
Our attraction to Vitamin C as a cure for the common cold started in the 1970s.
That’s when a man named Linus Pauling told the world to start taking heavy doses of Vitamin C. In his book How to Live Longer and Feel Better, he recommended megadoses (an actual scientific term) of the vitamin to ward off the common cold, among other things.
Why did the world listen to this man?
Because he was (and still is) considered one of the top scientific minds of all time (1). He pretty much single-handedly founded the fields of quantum chemistry AND molecular biology. He was awarded two different Nobel prizes, in two different categories (chemistry and peace).
The man was brilliant so the world listened when he told us to take way more Vitamin C than anyone thought was possible. So what if it brought on a “laxative” effect. Kidney stones? No sweat if it means no more colds. The word spread and soon Vitamin C and “cure for the common cold” were linked forever.
Even though Linus Pauling’s advice may not have produced results out the way he hoped, people still line up to buy Vitamin C to this day.
Scientific data has poured in since Pauling’s book came out.
To try and help people sort out the facts, The U.S. National Library of Medicine has an official government statement on Vitamin C and colds: the research is “conflicting” (2).
This doesn’t seem very clear, and that’s because the efficacy of Vitamin C depends on who you are, where you live, and precisely what result you’re seeking when you take the supplement.
No studies have yet been able to establish a link between taking a Vitamin C supplement and preventing a cold.
Vitamin C may do something for colds, but not what you may think.
Perhaps if you’re a long-distance runner living in Iceland, you will see a benefit from Vitamin C supplementation. The only shred of evidence supporting any positive effect of Vitamin C on the common cold was seen on people who were exerting themselves very heavily in winter environments. Details are as follows:
In 2007 a review study was conducted, and then updated in 2013 (3). What that means is researchers looked at all the controlled trials ever performed involving Vitamin C, dating way back to 1966.
That’s 40 years of Vitamin C research rolled into one totally succinct report.
The review study involved thirty trials comparisons and over 11,000 participants. It was found that taking Vitamin C supplements to prevent a cold was no more effective than taking the placebo.
In other words, mega-dosing yourself with C will not keep you from getting a cold. It won’t even lessen your chances.
But the part about the cold-weather endurance athletes holds true: the same review study found an 8% chance that the cold would end sooner if they took Vitamin C. They were skiers, marathon runners, and soldiers operating in sub-arctic environments.
Doctors speculate that the reason for the benefit is because these super athletic cold-weather types have a Vitamin C deficiency. By dosing themselves with C, they’re simply bringing their levels back up to normal.
So in no way should we deduce from that the need to mega-dose ourselves with Vitamin C in order to prevent, shorten, or treat the common cold.
Zinc vs. Vitamin C for colds
Turns out we’ve been looking down the wrong supplement path the whole time. Researchers in the UK have revealed that Zinc, not Vitamin C, is the magic cold-fighter (4).
In another look-back study involving 67 different studies, remedies for the common cold, including Vitamin C supplements, were examined. There were no clear benefits to be found in any of the research for any of the traditional remedies except for zinc and washing your hands a lot.
It’s easy to see how data from research can get skewed. Cold-weather extreme athletes who probably have Vitamin C deficiencies benefit from supplementation.
Therefore it’s natural to assume that what works for them will work for everyone.
An entire generation was told by one of the most brilliant scientists of their generation that it works, it’s hard to blame them.
All you have to do is refer back to science, which gives the ultimate word on what works and what doesn’t.
Summary: Taking Vitamin C won’t prevent colds but for some cold-weather athletes it might shorten the duration of their colds. You’re might be better off taking Zinc.
- Paradowski, Robert. Linus Pauling, American Scientist. Retrieved 9/11/2015 from http://www.britannica.com/biography/Linus-Pauling
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. Vitamin C and colds. Retrieved 9/11/2015 from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002145.htm
- Douglas RM, Hemilia H, Chalker E, Treacy B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. US National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 9/11/2015 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17636648
- Knapton, Sarah. The Telegraph. Zinc not Vitamin C is best for fighting colds. Retrieved 9/11/2015 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/sarah-knapton/10600246/Zinc-not-Vitamin-C-is-best-for-fighting-colds.html