Antioxidants are a staple in many skincare formulations these days and for good reason. Aside from protecting your skin from harmful free radicals, antioxidants have the ability to soothe visible irritation and inflammation, brighten skin, build and preserve collagen from within, and improve fine lines and wrinkles. In short, they are truly a skincare powerhouse! In this post, we’ll spend some time getting familiar with antioxidants, learning how they protect the skin and how best to use them in your routine.
What Antioxidants Do For the Skin
Antioxidants benefit your skin by preventing oxidation, a process that can damage skin cells and even lead to premature cell death. The human body is constantly being exposed to external factors that trigger oxidation: UV light from the sun, air pollution, and cigarette smoke (to name a few). We’re also exposed to oxidative stress through internal factors that are part of the body’s natural aging process.
So, what exactly is oxidation? Time for a quick science lesson! Simply put, oxidation is when a molecule loses an electron during a reaction. The thing about electrons is that they like to be in pairs. When a pair of electrons gets split by an aggressor, such as UV light, one of the electrons will “break free” and become what we call a free radical. This rogue electron will attach itself to other molecules in an attempt to pair up again. In the process, it interacts with the molecules in a cell’s proteins and DNA in a way that disrupts cellular function, sometimes to the point of cell death. This process can create even more free radicals, so you really want to disrupt the cycle.
Enter antioxidants. They prevent oxidation, just as the name implies. They do this by giving free radicals one of their electrons, which they can do without becoming unstable themselves. This prevents free radicals from attaching to molecules in healthy cells and causing damage.
How to Use Antioxidants in Skincare
There are three main ways an ingredient can provide antioxidant support for the skin:
- Direct Antioxidants: These are ingredients that are themselves antioxidants. Examples include CoQ10 and L-ascorbic acid (a pure, but notoriously unstable, form of vitamin C). When applied to the skin, these antioxidants get right to work.
- Antioxidant Derivatives: These are ingredients that act as precursors to antioxidants, meaning they need to undergo a transformation before your skin can actually use them. A good example of this is tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (try saying THAT three times fast). This ingredient is an oil-soluble derivative of vitamin C that penetrates into the skin and slowly disperses after it’s been converted into active vitamin C. The benefit of this is that it’s much more stable than L-ascorbic acid, and it’s also far less likely to cause skin irritation thanks to its slow release. (I’m talking to you sensitive skin types!)
- Complex Mixtures: These are usually plant extracts (think green tea or blueberry extract) that are made up of many components—one of which can be direct antioxidants such as polyphenols, catechins, or flavonoids. As long as the extract is properly delivered into your skin, these antioxidants start working immediately.
It can be helpful to take your skin type into consideration when deciding which form of antioxidants to use—as I mentioned, some may be more suitable for sensitive skin than others. In terms of efficacy though, there isn’t really an advantage to using one over the other. They all work well as long as they’re formulated and stored properly (this is REALLY key when it comes to antioxidants).
Look for a Stable Formula (and Yes, Packaging Matters)
Because they respond to oxidation, antioxidants are inherently unstable. Oxidation is happening all around us, all the time, so it’s absolutely critical that antioxidants are stabilized within a skincare formula and housed in protective packaging. Think of it this way—you don’t want the antioxidants to get “used up” fighting oxidation that isn’t occurring in your skin. You want to keep them protected until you’re ready to apply them topically to reap the full benefits.
There are two main ways antioxidants can be stabilized in a skincare formula. The first is through encapsulation. Encapsulation is a process that involves coating a molecule in something that will act as a carrier to deliver it deeper into the skin. Certain encapsulations also allow for time-release so an ingredient is delivered into the skin like a slow, steady drip as opposed to all at once. The second way to stabilize an antioxidant is to pair it with other ingredients that have a stabilizing effect. This is one of the reasons you so often see vitamin C paired with vitamin E or ferulic acid.
None of this matters much if your antioxidant products aren’t stored in protective packaging. When I say protective, I mean two things: airless and opaque. Oxygen and light can both trigger oxidation, so the product needs to be protected from both in order to maintain the efficacy of its antioxidants.
Use a Leave-On Product, Like an Antioxidant Serum
Antioxidants don’t work at the surface level. In order to be effective, they need to penetrate into the skin. Aside from using a stable product with an effective delivery system, one of the ways this can be achieved is by using a leave-on product, such as an antioxidant serum. The point is to give the product maximum contact time with your skin, which is why, ideally, your antioxidant product would be one of the first you apply. This would avoid interference, so it doesn’t have to fight its way through layers of other products in order to reach the skin.
For all of these reasons, I recommend using a serum that contains antioxidants. Serums are typically formulated to have a low molecular weight so they can penetrate deeper into the epidermis than other products. This isn’t to say other types of products that contain antioxidants won’t work, but if you’re really looking to pack a punch in terms of results, a serum is the best way to go.
How Consuming Antioxidants Affects the Skin
It’s well-known that eating a diet rich in antioxidants is incredibly important for overall health. Whether it’s vitamin C from citrus, lycopene from tomatoes, or anthocyanin from blueberries, there are many antioxidant-rich foods that can benefit our bodies and, by extension, our skin.
How much of a direct impact do oral antioxidants have on our skin? The answer is…complicated. There have been very few studies done on this topic specifically, and the reality is there’s no way to know what amount of antioxidants will end up in our skin. After all, antioxidants don’t enter your system and say, “okay, I’m going to go directly to the skin!” Instead, they travel throughout your circulatory system, getting delivered wherever they’re needed. They’re basically “prioritized” by your body. This is exactly the same reason drinking water won’t hydrate your skin.
The benefit of applying antioxidants topically in a stabilized skincare formula is that they’re guaranteed to act locally, protecting your skin from harmful free radicals. I’d say keep eating the rainbow since it’s so good for overall health, but make sure you’re applying an antioxidant serum to your skin every day as well!
How to Choose the Right Antioxidants
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), anyone in their 20s and beyond can benefit from using antioxidants in skincare. Keep in mind that in your 20s your skin is still quite young, so you want to avoid overusing antioxidants such as vitamin A (retinol) that stimulate cell turnover. I usually recommend people start using retinol anywhere from ages 25 to 30. The AAD recommends increasing the use of antioxidants in your 30s, specifically to target and prevent pigmentation. The main antioxidants recommended for this are vitamin C and retinol.
While the main benefit of any antioxidant is the prevention of cell damage caused by free radicals, most antioxidants offer additional skincare benefits beyond that: vitamin C brightens and prevents pigmentation, astaxanthin (found in certain algae) can reduce inflammation and boost collagen production, and green tea extract is great for addressing puffiness and redness, to name just a few. For this reason, I suggest incorporating a diverse mix of antioxidants into your routine. Look for antioxidants that provide benefits that address the needs of your specific skin type, goals, and concerns. Most of all, make sure you’re using them consistently to see the best results in the long run.
I hope you enjoyed learning about how antioxidants work and how they should be used in skincare! This is such a versatile, beneficial class of ingredients and I firmly believe everyone should be taking advantage of it in their skincare routine.
Next, read up on five things to look for in a vitamin C serum (especially if you use retinol or acids).
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”