Drunk Elephant C-Firma Review and the problem with Vitamin C

I took the photos for this post about five months ago – not long after I first bought the Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum in November and instantly fell in love. Any yet here we are in April and I’m only just getting around to writing it. Grab a drink – this a long-un.

If you want a bit of a back story about why I purchased this, then check out my first impressions post here. This post is going to be about how I got on with the product and my two cents’ worth on the ever-bubbling conversation about Vitamin C.

What do they say?

A super-potent vitamin C day serum packed with a powerful antioxidant complex, essential nutrients, fruit enzymes and a chronopeptide that provides the benefits of Vitamin D, all working together to firm and brighten the appearance of skin, while improving the signs of photoaging.

C-Firma is probably the most iconic product from Drunk Elephant’s small but excellent line. Of all the vitamin C products I’ve read about (disclaimer: this is the first and only one I’ve tried) this is definitely one of the most popular. It uses L-Ascorbic Acid, the most potent form of Vitamin C, and is formulated to the perfect pH to allow the ingredient to function properly. Drunk Elephant say:

C-Firma™ has a reservoir effect, which means it will stay active on skin for up to 72 hours and cannot be washed or rubbed off. C-Firma™ has a pH level of 3.3 to 3.5, which Drunk Elephant believes is the key to a non-irritating, clinically-effective formulation that delivers real results.



Drunk Elephant are a clean brand, and list a whole host of nasties that you won’t find anywhere near their products (somewhat controversially called their “blacklist”).

L-Ascorbic Acid (15%) is the key ingredient here – but I will go into more detail on that later in this post. In addition to this, some of the ingredients that stand out to me are:

Ferulic Acid: This little wonder ingredient is a plant-derived, proven antioxidant. It also features in another of my favourite products – the Dr Dennis Gross Overnight Wrinkle Recovery Serum.

Virgin Marula Oil: This is the star ingredient of Drunk Elephant’s range (they are so named because apparently elephants get drunk when they eat the fermented fruit from Marula trees). It features in this serum which, as a big oil fan, is a massive bonus for me.

Pumpkin Ferment Extract and Pomegranate Enzyme: I don’t think these gentle exfoliants are make or break in this formula, but a great addition the help keep the skin clear.

Full ingredients:

Water/Aqua/Eau, Ethoxydiglycol, Ascorbic Acid, Glycerin, Laureth-23, Lactobacillus/Pumpkin Ferment Extract, Sclerocarya Birrea Seed Oil, Ferulic Acid, Sodium Hyaluronate, Chondrus Crispus Extract, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Lactobacillus/Punica Granatum Fruit Ferment Extract, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Juice Extract, Phyllanthus Emblica Fruit Extract, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Tocopherol, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Acetyl Glucosamine, Hydrolyzed Quinoa, Glutamylamidoethyl Imidazole, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Tetrahydrodiferuloylmethane, Tetrahydrodemethoxydiferuloylmethane, Tetrahydrobisdemethoxydiferuloylmethane, Sodium Hyaluronate Crosspolymer, Glycine, Sucrose, Maltodextrin, Propanediol, Caprylyl Glycol, Sodium Hydroxide, Xanthan gum, Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Isohexadecane, Polysorbate 60

How do I use it?

As the name implies, this is a day serum. Vitamin C works well in the day because it boosts the efficacy of your SPF and because of the “reservoir effect” Drunk Elephant talks about, there really isn’t much point using it in the evening as well.

Because it’s such a potent antioxidant serum, you ideally want to apply this as soon as possible after cleansing. However, if you are a fan of layering, the oil content does make that difficult because not many products can penetrate oil to get deep into the skin.

My favourite way to use this is to layer a light hydrating serum or essence (Jordan Samuel Hydrate or Su-Man Rehydrating Toning Essence are my current favourites), then follow up with another oil or a moisturiser.


What do I think?

It seems that C-Firma is about as good as it gets with vitamin C.

When I first got it I loved it. Firstly, Drunk Elephant’s packaging is outstanding – I’ll be bold enough to say it’s the best on the market. It is completely air-tight and opaque, protecting the product from oxygen and sunlight, which helps slow down the degradation of ingredients.

The serum itself is a lovely texture that sinks in easily, not too sticky, not too unpleasant in scent – just really great. My skin loved it too – in fact it features in a post (which I never ended up writing) called “Three products that saved my skin”. My skin just reacted so well to it. Well, until it didn’t…

Vitamin C is a bit of a hot-topic at the moment. Dr Dennis Gross and Sunday Riley have both recently launched lines dedicated to the ingredient, and Clinique have just launched their Fresh-Pressed cleanser/serum duo which is causing much excitement because of the unprecedented delivery system designed for the preservation of the L-Ascorbic Acid.

L-Ascorbic Acid is the most potent form of Vitamin C, but is notoriously unstable and oxidises quickly.  I’ll be honest – I didn’t know a huge amount about L-Ascorbic Acid when I purchased this, other than it’s supposed benefits, but over the past five months I’ve learnt a bit and come-up against few of the main issues that people seem to face with products featuring this ingredient.

Issue 1: Instability
Urgh – where to start with this. I always knew instability was a major issue with vitamin C, but Drunk Elephant is so well packaged and my bottle came with a PAO (period after opening/use by date) of 24 months that I wasn’t too concerned. I used it daily for about two months and then earlier this year my skin started playing up and every time I reached for my C-Firma I  just felt it didn’t help the situation and I had a niggling feeling it was actually irritating my skin.

It sat untouched for a while until a few weeks ago, when I watched Renee from Gothamista’s review of the Drunk Elephant range and she talked quite extensively about the C-Firma and the issues of its oxidisation. She showed the difference in colour of the product between a new bottle and a bottle that was about five months old. The difference was quite startling and it made me think about my own bottle. What took me aback the most was that the colour of Renee’s new bottle was very light – mine was never as light as that.

Reading more and thinking more logically about it, I realised that L-Ascorbic Acid starts to oxidise/break down as soon as it’s mixed with water – so the product is on a countdown from the moment the formula is mixed. Good packaging (and Drunk Elephant’s is great) can only ensure other external factors don’t speed up the process, it can’t prevent the inevitable.

I’m think that mine was potentially a month or so old when I first got it, so it went bad in only a few months. This is also potentially why I was finding it irritating. I reached out to Drunk Elephant and this was the response:

Hi. We have learned as we’ve gone through the process. We have always been as clear as we could be based on what we know and knew at the time. There’s one thing for sure, our goal is to deliver an effective product and your money’s worth, the problem is, we’ve lived through a period of trial and error, as every brand does. Throughout the 3 years we have sold C-Firma, we have tweaked the formulation to make it thicker, we have changed the packaging because we had a faulty bottle in the beginning, we have improved the filling process so that less air hits the products. we have learned that turmeric darkens the product over time no matter what, we have changed the shelf life (shown through stability testing to be 24 months) to 12 months and we have begun to produce batches more often now to yield the best results. We recommend you use within 6 months, it’s best that way. There has never been any intent on our part to trick the customer and we always send a fresh bottle to unsatisfied customers. It’s all easier said than done and we are quick to admit our mistakes. Today, our C-Firma is as good as it gets and we are very proud of it. It is our number one selling sku so we thank everyone for their patience, understanding and support around this!! 🎉 So sorry for any bad experiences, we can’t go back and change those but we can say that we have a firm handle on it now and we’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen. If you get a bottle that appears oxidized, send it back and we’ll replace it. It’s as simple as that. Please know though there is still a range of acceptable color and scent change. Light golden to warm amber/pale orange is fine. We do not scent or dye the product on purpose, so you will always see exactly what’s going on. The C-Firma is formulated at 3.5. It has to be stabilized properly and it is. Water doesn’t break down L-Ascorbic acid immediately, but it begins to at some point. Best to use up within 6 months! The pH level is on the packaging and it’s at a clinically effective/non-irritating level! Hope that helps. 💓🐘

I went back into my local Mecca Maxima and tried the tester on my hand and I remember why I liked it so much. The smell, feel and colour was totally different from the version I had thrown in the bin the week before – it was obvious why I had stopped reaching for it. I also checked the boxes and they are newer, with 12 month PAOs.

Issue 2: L-Ascorbic Acid vs Niacinimide
I still don’t really know what the truth is around this, but having heard that niacinimide depletes the effectivess of LAA and that the two combines can cause irritation. I took a look at all my products and found a lot of my favourites contained niacinimide – usually quite high on the ingredients list. This left me with a conundrum as I suddenly had very few products I could used with my C-Firma. I did some more reading and was even more unconvinced and confused, so reached out to Stratia (their Liquid Gold, which I use as my day-time moisturiser, contains niacinimide – you see the issue!) who directed me to this post by Kind of Stephen. It’s very scientific, but the message I took from it is the one that applies to pretty much all skincare (there are some exceptions, obviously) – if it’s working for your skin then it’s fine.

Would I repurchase?

So here’s where my problem lies. I really like this product but I just don’t know if it’s worth it. Even if I used it everyday I think it would go bad before I finished it, and I don’t think I would want to use it everyday as I would like to alternate it with my new favourite, the Paula’s Choice Brightening Essence.

So that begs the question – is vitamin C really such a hero product? I know other derivatives are more stable than L-Ascorbic, but less effective – but does vitamin C really provide benefits that you can’t get from other ingredients? I don’t know. I just feel like it’s money down the drain. I think I am going to give the Clinique Fresh Pressed a go, and Mecca Maxima have just today got the Dr Dennis Gross C+ Collagen Brighten + Firm Vitamin C Serum in stock… (if you’ve tried this I’d love your thoughts).

I love Drunk Elephant and I love this product. If decide to stick with vitamin C this will definitely hit my bathroom shelf sometime in the future.

Drunk Elephant is available online from drunkelephant.com, sephora.com, mecca.com.au, meccabeauty.co.nz

10 thoughts on “Drunk Elephant C-Firma Review and the problem with Vitamin C

  1. Hi Effie
    Fantastic info, I have been wanting to add vitamin C into my routine again after some previously negative experiences with it, Have been patch testing some sample of DE Firma C which Mecca kindly provided. They are however very dark and clearly already oxidised. Each time I have used it, my skin has not reacted particularly well and I am linking some breakouts to this. Had initially thought it may have been the Marula oil content causing the congestion, but feel that it’s probably the oxidisation after reading this. Also, use a lot of products containing niacinamide as well, so that was great info as well. Follow u on Instagram as well, love your posts, so glad I found your blog.



    1. Thanks Michelle! Yes – you never know how long those testers have been out for! Although Marula can be congesting. It is a risk but if you think it’s oxidised you can send a photo to DE and they will replace if it’s bad. If it breaks you out I’m fairly sure Mecca will refund you (worth checking first) xx


  2. Very informative post. My search for perfect, immortal ascorbic acid serum continues even after Timeless and DE.
    Do you know, PC’s brightening essence does have vit c and niacinamide together. Though i don’t know if vit c is ascorbic acid or one of it’s esters.


  3. Just found your blog and really love your thoughts on cfirma. 🙂 I’m in that phase of wondering if i would buy another bottle since it turned rather quickly. It felt sticky and not so absorbing at that exact 6 month mark for me..


  4. Thank you for your honest post. I have the same thoughts and reservations about Drunk Elephant’s C-Firma. I think that moving forward, I would only purchase the morning bundle that includes the C-Firma and B-hydra in smaller bottles, which is more cost effective and there is less worry of the LAA breaking down before you are done using it. Have you tried Sunday Riley’s CEO Flash Brightening Serum? It uses a newer form of vitamin C that is much more stable than LAA and is less sensitizing. It is also an ester and can absorb even through a lipid layer (e.g. even if you apply an oil in the morning or have oily skin, this product still works well).


    1. I agree DE is quite problematic – I’ve never had the mini bottles but I gather they are not particular air tight and the product actually goes bad even quicker! I’m not really a fan of Sunday Riley as a brand so won’t be trying their CEO range, However I am currently using Garden of Wisdom Vit C and Ferulic Serum and it’s amazing! £10 from Victoria Health (so a bargain compared to most!!) would definitely recommend!


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