Go to any dermatologist and, after they’ve gently reminded you about the importance of sun protection, they’ll probably advise you add some antioxidants into your skincare routine. They’re purported to help with everything from acne to aging, but what exactly makes these substances such powerhouses? Here’s what to know.
What Are Antioxidants and Free Radicals?
Antioxidants are molecules that help impede the cell damage caused by free radicals, which are missing an electron and thus rendered unstable. A free radical atom or molecule attacks the nearest stable molecule and “steals” a replacement electron, which results in damage to the cell. The victimized molecule, now missing an electron, is transformed into a free radical in search of its own replacement electron, setting off a chain reaction of damage.
Antioxidants, which include vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene, neutralize that damage by offering up one of their own electrons, thereby helping to prevent cell and tissue breakdown that can result in further damage and disease — everything from wrinkles and hyperpigmentation to chronic conditions including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Produced by the body and obtained through foods and topical application, antioxidants are integral to the body’s powerful defense system. As the body’s largest organ, skin plays a crucial role in protecting against oxidative stressors such as UV radiation, cigarette smoke, pollution, emotional stress, and poor diet — all of which contribute to aging and disease.
In short, oxidative stress represents the imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to use antioxidants to counteract their harmful effects. While our bodies are adept at producing antioxidants that balance the effects of oxidative stress, that ability lessens as we age and our skin — already compromised by the above assaults — produces less of the antioxidant-rich oils that protect it.
The 7 Main Benefits of Antioxidants for Your Skin
1) Antioxidants can quell inflammation
Free radicals and inflammation go hand-in-hand. But thanks in part to that close connection, antioxidants can actually reduce inflammation as they neutralize free radicals. They may also interfere with the pathways that lead to chronic inflammation in the skin, in turn soothing redness, flakiness, and other signs of inflamed skin. It also brings us to the next point…
2) Antioxidants can help prevents signs of aging
Chronic inflammation is so closely tied to signs of aging that there’s a new term for it: “inflammaging.’” But antioxidants can help: In mitigating oxidative stress and calming inflammation throughout the skin, antioxidants may slow down those resultant wrinkles, lines, and hyperpigmentation. Their presence can be important in terms of sun exposure, too. While sunscreen is the best first-line defense, antioxidants can intercept free radicals from any sunlight that may sneak by.
3) Antioxidants can help treat acne
Given the growing body of evidence around the effect of antioxidants on inflammation, it is no surprise that antioxidants are increasingly being used to treat inflammatory skin conditions like acne. Not only do acne-prone people show signs of increased oxidative stress systemically — including lower blood levels of antioxidant vitamins like A and E — but also that oxidative stress may trigger a wave of inflammation that ultimately fuels breakouts. In minimizing this oxidative stress, antioxidants put a stop to it. (That also explains the promising link between antioxidants and cystic acne.)
4) Antioxidants can help treat rosacea
Antioxidants are similarly beneficial when treating rosacea, another inflammatory skin condition that causes blemishes, facial redness, visible blood vessels, and sensitive, dry skin. Rosacea is linked to damage caused by UV and oxidative stress, which explains why some of the most effective agents in combating the disease are those that offer anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, the efficacy of certain antibiotics in the treatment of rosacea may result from their antioxidant effects.
5) Antioxidants can help brighten your skin
UV exposure can increase the production of melanin in skin, leading to sun spots, dark spots, and other forms of hyperpigmentation. Since antioxidants serve as the backup to your sunscreen, they can help keep your skin tone bright and even. Not only do they stymie the free radicals that kickstart the production of pigment, but certain ones, such as vitamin C, actually halt the process entirely.
6) Antioxidants can help moisturize your skin
Some antioxidants have properties that go far beyond neutralizing free radicals. Some, such as vitamin E and niacinamide, even double as a moisturizing agent and can even bolster the skin’s protective moisture barrier.
7) Antioxidants can help prevent sunburn
Think of a sunburn: red, sore to the touch, and flaky. Those are all the hallmarks of inflammation, which explains why anti-inflammatory antioxidants can help prevent sunburns in addition to the unseen cellular damage. If you know you’ll be spending an afternoon outdoors, pair your sunscreen with an antioxidant treatment for the best possible protection.
What Are the Best Antioxidants for Your Skin?
With that in mind, these are some of the most effective topical antioxidants and deserve a spot in your skincare ritual.
1) Vitamin C for brightening
Also known as l-ascorbic acid, vitamin C repairs cells and, in doing so, restores collagen production. On top of that, vitamin C interferes with the skin’s pigment production process, basically serving as a roadblock, which keeps UV rays from creating dark spots or an uneven skin tone.
2) Green tea extract for toning and soothing
Green tea extract is rich in EGCG, a powerful plant compound that has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties. Not only that, but it can actually reduce the levels of excess sebum on skin, making it an ideal ingredient for those with oily skin or breakouts.
3) Vitamin A for reducing fine lines and wrinkles
Retinol, a form of vitamin A, is known for its ability to speed skin cell turnover and boost collagen production, making it a go-to for reducing lines and wrinkles. However, it can be incredibly irritating and may be paired with controversial preservatives. Vitamin A-rich ingredients, such as rosehip seed oil and algae extract, offer similar skin-regenerating effects without the drawbacks.
4) Ferulic acid for repairing sun damage
Ferulic acid is an antioxidant with benefits on its own, but it really shines when combined with vitamin C. Together, the two work synergistically to defend against and repair sun damage in skin.
5) Vitamin E for moisturizing and healing
Beyond being a powerful antioxidant, vitamin E is beloved for its ability to nourish skin and promote healing. It also maintains skin barrier function, which in turn allows skin to better retain moisture.