Antioxidants are crucial in counteracting the damaging effects of oxidation or oxidative stress. Hence the name anti-oxidant. And antioxidants make up some of the most important ingredients in skincare, especially in an anti-aging one. They enhance your skincare routine and serve a variety of purposes like reducing hyperpigmentation, smoothing skin texture, and softening wrinkles.
Even though there are thousands of natural and synthetic antioxidants, some work way better than others. And that’s why some are more common than others. And knowing which antioxidant helps with what can help you find the right antioxidant to use on your skin.
But to understand what antioxidants do for your skin, you need to know what oxidation does to your skin. That way, you can truly appreciate antioxidants and can easily decide which one works best for your skin type and issues.
Read on to learn how antioxidants work in skincare, what exactly they do, and the best antioxidants for your skin.
What is Oxidative Stress?
A whole bunch of reasons including your diet and stress levels can cause oxidative stress. But to keep things simple and in the context of skincare, the main cause of oxidative stress can be narrowed down to UV rays followed by smoking and pollution (1).
Exposure to any of these launches a microscopic s**t storm in your skin, otherwise known as oxidative stress. And oxidative stress causes the formation of free radicals.
What Are Free Radicals?
Simply speaking, free radicals are altered molecules that are reactive and unstable. These “rogue” molecules interfere with various processes that are crucial to your skin’s health. They damage proteins like collagen and elastin, which give you that supple and bouncy skin (2).
To paint a clearer picture, free radicals dehydrate the skin, weaken the skin barrier, and deteriorate collagen. As a result, your skin is more prone to wrinkles, rough texture, sensitivity, and pigmentation. As you can gather, you should avoid exposing your skin to oxidative stress and avoid free radical damage.
What Do Antioxidants Do For Your Skin?
When you’re exposed to oxidative stress, your skin releases antioxidants to fight off free radicals. But the problem is that your skin can only produce so much.
That’s why topical antioxidants in the form of antioxidant serums and creams can help a lot. Antioxidants work to block and neutralize free radicals to prevent them from damaging your skin cells.
In short, antioxidants prevent the formation of wrinkles and help reverse the existing ones. Moreover, they improve the overall quality of your skin texture and tone.
Plus, almost all antioxidants have anti-inflammatory benefits to eliminate inflammatory causes of aging skin (3). Keep in mind that there’s a sea of antioxidants that have various benefits for your skin.
But unfortunately, when you narrow things down to topical skincare like serums and creams, you end up with a shorter list. For example, olive extract has a significantly larger antioxidant capacity than vitamin C.
However, olive oil doesn’t make the most aesthetically pleasing skincare. That’s why you should take a more holistic approach towards antioxidants and ensure you get them from red wine. Just kidding, include them in your diet.
The Best Antioxidants For Skin
If you’re ready to meet the hero ingredients, find below a list of the best antioxidants for your skin and their benefits.
1. Vitamin C
Ascorbic acid or vitamin C is one of the most popular and equally important antioxidants used in skincare. It’s effective in neutralizing free radicals caused by UVA or UVB rays (4). That’s also why it’s a great complement to your sunblock. Besides its amazing antioxidant properties to prevent and reverse free radical damage, vitamin C has additional benefits like stimulating collagen production.
And it also decreases melanin production, which helps fade pigmentation and dark spots. This is also why vitamin C is incredibly helpful in evening out the skin tone and brightening the complexion. Plus, when used in serums, it’s usually paired with vitamin E because vitamin C regenerates vitamin E.
2. Vitamin E
Also known as tocopherol, vitamin E effectively reduces UV damage on the skin (5). And it provides additional benefits like regulating the lipids in the skin barrier, which results in enhanced moisture levels. Normally, vitamin E is present in the outer layer of your skin.
And it’s an oil-soluble vitamin. So, it works best when delivered in an oil-based skincare product. That’s why you don’t find isolated vitamin E serums like vitamin C serums. They usually come in face oils. And face oils make amazing antioxidant products to deliver the benefits of vitamin E.
Polyphenols are the general term used to describe compounds derived from plants, vegetables, and fruits. They have incredible antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. And the most well-known from the group is resveratrol, which is commonly derived from grapes.
Resveratrol is an exceptional antioxidant that needs to be in your skincare. Because in addition to its free radical scavenger and wrinkle-reducing abilities, it also affects UV-induced pigmentation. It reduces melanin formation and is the perfect ingredient to reduce hyperpigmentation.
Flavonoids are a subdivision of polyphenols. And the most notable of the group is green tea aka Camellia sinensis. It’s the most well-researched of the bunch. It stabilizes free radicals and reduces the effects of oxidative stress (6). Green tea also has anti-inflammatory benefits for the skin.
For that reason, it’s like the gentlest anti-aging ingredient that can be used on even the most sensitive skin. It’s exceptional in reducing redness and inflammation on the skin, which is great for people with aging skin and acne.
Also known as ubiquinone, coenzyme Q10 is another antioxidant that’s already present in your skin (7). And its main function is to ensure cellular energy. It’s also one of those good things that decrease as we age. That’s why it’s commonly formulated into skin care products.
CoQ10, as an antioxidant, prevents and treats free radical damage in the skin. And true to its function, it increases cellular energy, which translates to things running smoothly so your skin is resilient and skin cells function properly.
Just like vitamin C or vitamin E, niacinamide is also a vitamin, vitamin B3 to be exact. Though you might be more familiar with its oil-reducing or pore-minimizing benefits, niacinamide is an antioxidant too (8). It works in two ways.
First, it prevents inflammation, which causes a cascade of events that end up in free radical formation, thus, signs of aging. Second, it prevents melanin transfer. So it helps with sun-induced dark spots and hyperpigmentation too. It’s also a gentle antioxidant with additional benefits like improving skin barrier function and reducing redness.
7. Vitamin A
Saved this for last! First of all, having antioxidant properties and being an antioxidant are two different things. Vitamin A and its derivatives like retinol or retinyl palmitate are not antioxidants -not in the sense that we’ve been talking about.
When used in skincare products, vitamin A is a cell regulator. It works by accelerating the cell turnover rate (9). So old skin cells are constantly replaced by newer and healthier ones.
While the other vitamins stimulate collagen production, vitamin A plays hard and directly affects the initiation of collagen formation. It’s way more anti-aging than the antioxidants we’ve been talking about.
However, you can’t approach vitamin A the way you approach vitamin E. It requires caution, is not pregnancy-safe, and needs an adjustment period. Vitamin C or vitamin E won’t cause peeling on your skin whereas vitamin A is very likely to do so.
So, that’s why it’s not advisable to lump vitamin A with other antioxidants on this list. Learn how to use retinol before using one. And take vitamin A through your diet for its antioxidant benefits.
So these are some of the best antioxidants you can find in skincare products. As I said, there is more! But these are the ones with the most research behind them and the most common ones formulated into skin care products.
For example, ferulic acid, bakuchiol, licorice extract, ginseng extract, and Centella Asiatica are all amazing extracts with major antioxidant effects. But some of these are either somewhat new to the scene or are usually paired with other antioxidants in skincare. So don’t think that the 7 antioxidants above are the only ones you have.
Let’s take a step back for a second. All of these antioxidants are great for reducing the damaging effects of sun exposure. And the whole process can be prevented to a great extent simply by wearing sunscreen. Keep that in mind, and consider antioxidants as an extension of your sun protection.
Read Next: The Best Antioxidant Moisturizers
- Rinnerthaler, M., Bischof, J., Streubel, M. K., Trost, A., & Richter, K. (2015). Oxidative stress in aging human skin. Biomolecules, 5(2), 545–589. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom5020545
- Silva, S., Michniak-Kohn, B., & Leonardi, G. R. (2017). An overview about oxidation in clinical practice of skin aging. Anais brasileiros de dermatologia, 92(3), 367–374. https://doi.org/10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175481
- Addor F. (2017). Antioxidants in dermatology. Anais brasileiros de dermatologia, 92(3), 356–362. https://doi.org/10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175697
- Al-Niaimi, F., & Chiang, N. (2017). Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 10(7), 14–17.
- Poljšak, Borut & Dahmane, Raja & Godic, Aleksandar. (2013). Skin and antioxidants. Journal of cosmetic and laser therapy : official publication of the European Society for Laser Dermatology. 15. 10.3109/14764172.2012.758380.
- Menaa, Farid & Menaa, Abder & Tréton, Jacques. (2014). Chapter 63 – Polyphenols against Skin Aging. 10.1016/B978-0-12-398456-2.00063-3.
- Knott, A., Achterberg, V., Smuda, C., Mielke, H., Sperling, G., Dunckelmann, K., Vogelsang, A., Krüger, A., Schwengler, H., Behtash, M., Kristof, S., Diekmann, H., Eisenberg, T., Berroth, A., Hildebrand, J., Siegner, R., Winnefeld, M., Teuber, F., Fey, S., Möbius, J., … Blatt, T. (2015). Topical treatment with coenzyme Q10-containing formulas improves skin’s Q10 level and provides antioxidative effects. BioFactors (Oxford, England), 41(6), 383–390. https://doi.org/10.1002/biof.1239
- Boo Y. C. (2021). Mechanistic Basis and Clinical Evidence for the Applications of Nicotinamide (Niacinamide) to Control Skin Aging and Pigmentation. Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), 10(8), 1315. https://doi.org/10.3390/antiox10081315
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327