It’s next to impossible to discuss skincare these days without hearing about antioxidants, particularly when it comes to anti-aging. Dermatologists say they’re one of the few proven ingredients to really work against the aging process. That’s why, when you walk into the skin-care aisle, you’ll see everything from cleansers to moisturizers containing antioxidants. But are they, exactly, and more importantly, how do they work? It’s a confusing subject for even the most seasoned skincare enthusiast.
To understand what antioxidants do for your skin, think of your skin like metal. If you leave metal outside, exposed to the elements like air and water, it will eventually rust. That rusting is called oxidation and is similar to what happens to your skin when it’s not protected.
Oxidation has a different effect on our skin than it does on metal (that’s why you don’t see people walking around with rust on their faces). On our skin, it’s more commonly called oxidative stress and happens when our skin cells are exposed to UV light and other environmental factors like pollution, smoke, and even the blue light from your phone screen. These factors create things called free radicals, tiny atoms that steal electrons from otherwise healthy cells. These free radicals bind themselves to things like collagen in our skin, weakening the bonds between the cells and causing aging.
Antioxidants neutralize these free radicals before they can do damage. In the presence of antioxidants, free radicals will steal electrons from them instead of your healthy cells, which helps avoid oxidative stress. Think of your skin like a chess game: antioxidants are the pawns, the first line of defense against the enemy (free radicals) and willing to sacrifice themselves for the protection of the king (your healthy skin cells).
That’s why, just like adding Vitamin C to your diet, using skincare products with antioxidants every day can mean big benefits down the road. And for the skeptics among us, studies have shown that antioxidants applied topically are effectively absorbed by our skin. However, the most effective concentration is still a point of debate. The best thing you can do for your skin is to apply an antioxidant serum or find a daily moisturizer that contains antioxidants.
What antioxidants should you look for in skincare? I’m glad you asked. Here is a short list of common skin-friendly antioxidants and what they do.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is the king of antioxidants and is highly effective both internally and topically. If taken as an oral supplement, it helps safeguard your immune system against external forces and does the same thing for your skin when you apply it topically. Look for a serum containing a high percentage of vitamin C and apply it before you put on moisturizer. Bonus: it can help brighten your skin and reduce the appearance of dark marks and sun spots.
Vitamin E: It’s the multitasker of the antioxidant world and is especially good at reducing inflammation and keeping skin healthy and happy. While it’s great on its own, you usually see it combined with vitamin C because together, they’re like the Super Friends. Vitamin E simply works better when combined with C and vice versa. Look for a serum with both for a double whammy of antioxidant power.
Vitamin A: In skincare, you usually see vitamin A called another name: retinol. This potent antioxidant is extremely helpful at regulating the life cycle of skin cells and helps reduce signs of aging. It’s also commonly used to address acne, since it helps the body shed dead skin cells faster, before they can clog pores. It can be potent, so start slow (once a week) and work your way up to every day after any irritation slows down.
Niacinamide: In the family of antioxidants,nNiacinamide is the gentle soul. It’s good for all skin types and helps maintain a healthy skin barrier, which not only helps protect against free radicals, but also helps retain moisture. It’s often combined with moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and is perfect in a daily moisturizer.
Green Tea: Just like in your diet, green tea is commonly used in skincare because of its profound soothing effects. It’s not only an antioxidant, but also an anti-inflammatory agent and is ideal for anyone suffering from redness and irritation like rosacea. Look for it in soothing creams and moisturizers and apply liberally to angry skin.
Illustration by Aviel Basil