The legend of the quest for the Holy Grail is illustrative of the human condition. Humanity has dreamed of finding magic solutions and miracle cures for problems and diseases since the dawn of time. And when it comes to skincare, the same applies. You’re probably aware that every few months, the skincare industry comes up with brand new, often over-hyped products that promise, for lack of a better word, wondrous benefits.
To be sure, when it comes to skincare and treating this, or that skin condition, there is no “silver bullet.” However, some ingredients are more promising than others - and that’s the case with today’s topic - antioxidants and their benefits for the skin.
So let’s take a dive and see what are the benefits of antioxidants for skin, and how to use them.
A class of substances found both in nature, and produced by our own bodies, antioxidants are almost specialized in performing very important functions when it comes to our health. In short, and as the name suggests, antioxidants act against “oxidation”, which is a chemical reaction that produces harmful substances, called free radicals.
These free radicals roam around our bodies, initiating all sorts of chemical reactions that can cause damage to the cells of any living organism. Free radicals can sometimes even damage the cell’s very DNA, causing a condition known as “oxidative stress.” And oxidative stress is responsible for both the aging of our cells, and with it, our bodies. But not only that. Oxidative stress can also induce harmful mutations within the DNA of our cells, leading to a number of cancers. It becomes clear, then, that stopping free radicals and preventing the oxidative stress they induce is of paramount importance. And that’s exactly where antioxidants enter the picture.
So what are antioxidants? Well, most of them are actually vitamins. Some of the most powerful antioxidants are Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6, and many others. When it comes to vitamins for skin and their antioxidant properties, it is important to note that they perform many functions in our bodies that boost our immune system, regenerate our tissues and skin, and regulate tons of vital processes.
Alongside vitamins though, there are other types of antioxidants, such as flavonoids, polyphenols, glutathione, and others. But before we proceed to look at specific antioxidants, let’s take a look at the best benefits of antioxidants for the skin.
As we mentioned in the introduction, antioxidants have a number of special benefits, not just for our skin, but for our overall health as well. But just what are these benefits? Let’s take a look at them.
And not just aging, but its signs as well. As we said above, free radicals can cause a condition known as oxidative stress, which in turn causes the premature aging of our cells. Of course, the same goes for skin cells too. Science is working hard to find all the reasons that cause aging, and if possible stop it, or even reverse it. But until that day comes, our best bet in preventing aging is using antioxidants.
As time goes by, our bodies age, and as our skin cells become damaged and less and less efficient at performing their functions. While these processes are not visible to us without a microscope, their effects are very visible on our skin. These effects are what we know as signs of aging, making our skin more brittle, less elastic, more rugged, more vulnerable, drier, and finally, weaker and more fragile.
And all of that is caused by the free radicals and their consequences. But if we ingest enough antioxidants and vitamins, they will hunt down and get rid of these free radicals. And what’s more, antioxidants and vitamins also prevent the processes which create free radicals. So, if you want to prevent aging, and even reduce its signs, antioxidants are the closest thing to a miracle cure in existence.
At the time of writing this article, there are heat waves setting records around the planet. It’s scorching summer, and whether you’re planning on hitting a nice beach somewhere, or just going out and about for some shopping, the sun’s rays will get to you. Barring the use of quality, broad-spectrum sunscreens to prevent photoaging, there is very little else that can protect us from the sun and prevent sunburns.
Except for antioxidants.
See, among other things, antioxidants possess anti-inflammatory properties too. This means that they relax our skin’s inflammatory responses, including those aimed at the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB radiation. By making our body’s inflammatory response more toned down, antioxidants reduce the negative effects of sunburn, reducing their appearance, area, and pain. This means that if you’re stocked up on vitamins and other precious antioxidants, your skin becomes more resistant to the sun’s radiation and its sunburns too. However, antioxidants alone won’t protect you from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. Remember, if you want healthy skin - never skip on sunscreen.
Apart from the benefits that we already listed above, antioxidants can also help our skin repair itself. This is especially true of some vitamins, like Vitamin C and Vitamin A, which is the source for a ton of Vitamin A analogs, such as retinol, Retin A, Accutane, or other retinoids. Some of these are so powerful that they’re routinely used in the treatment of acne and, occasionally, for the treatment of severe acne scars.
Vitamin C, on the other hand, can stimulate collagen production too. So what’s the fuss, you may be asking? Well, collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in our body. It makes up most of our joints, connective tissues, and finally, our skin. It is thought that collagen amounts to a whopping 30% of the total amount of protein in the human body.
But as we age, and as free radicals and environmental factors damage our skin, it gradually loses its amount of collagen. What’s even worse, however, is that our skin gradually loses its ability to produce collagen as well. This makes it weaker, more fragile, less elastic, and finally - defenseless.
All of this amounts to yet another reason why we need antioxidants for our skin. By boosting collagen production, antioxidants can make our skin stronger, more elastic, but also much more efficient at repairing itself.
Free radicals don’t just damage our cells and their DNA. The consequences from their shenanigans and the chain reactions of oxidative stress can sometimes reverberate far and wide. One such consequence is the hampering of the skin’s natural ability to produce melanin - the skin’s pigment.
This process is known as melanogenesis, and it’s crucial in maintaining our skin tone, but also in protecting our skin from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. This process, whereby our skin ages quickly, and becomes discolored due to too much exposure to the sun, is known as photoaging. But photoaging really kicks up a gear (or several) when the production of melanin gets thrown out of whack thanks to those pesky free radicals.
When this happens, our skin ends up with different forms of discoloration. An area can be too bright than the surrounding skin, or it can end up being too dark. Dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin tone are all different variations of discoloration. Something, somehow, has disrupted the production of melanin at a particular patch of skin. But antioxidants (and most notably Vitamin C) can regulate, and even inhibit the production of melanin. This makes Vitamin C an effective ingredient if you seek to even out your skin tone, or make dark patches lighter.
It’s fairly simple, really. Since antioxidants hunt down and rid our bodies of free radicals, which can cause cancers, antioxidants can serve as prevention for cancer. As we noted above, free radicals can become so rampant that they can throw out our entire metabolism out of order, creating a condition called oxidative stress.
During oxidative stress, our bodies aren’t able to repair all the damage that’s being caused, and slowly, but surely, our cells age, our DNA mutates, and our health deteriorates. That’s a fertile ground for the appearance of various types of cancer, and it’s best to be avoided. But how do free radicals even become so powerful and numerous to cause this state? Well, it’s because we didn’t have enough antioxidants in our system to begin with. Keep this in mind - antioxidants hunt and destroy free radicals.
But moreover, vitamins and other antioxidants can also prevent the processes that create free radicals, making the entire process even more efficient. Besides boosting our immune system, then, antioxidants and vitamins play a crucial role in preventing diseases and keeping us in top shape. So, take your vitamins, people.
All right. Since we covered the most important benefits of antioxidants for the skin (there are more, you know), let us now take a look at some of the most powerful, and best antioxidants for the skin out there. After all, not all antioxidants are created equal, and some are more powerful than others. And only a portion of those are, in turn, present in your typical skincare product. So without further ado, here are the best antioxidants for skin.
A lot has been said about Vitamin C and its amazing benefits, both for the body and for our skin. Vitamin C is one of the most widely used antioxidants in skincare, but its reputation is well-deserved. It’s one of the longest studied vitamins in the history of mankind, and its effects on our health have been thoroughly studied as well. In skincare, Vitamin C is mostly used in products that aim to lighten up dark spots and boost collagen.
But, a note of caution. Vitamin C is great, but very unstable when it comes into contact with the environment. This is especially the case with Vitamin C serums, which contain high concentrations of pure vitamin. The molecular structure of Vitamin C is super susceptible to being broken down if it encounters air or light. A mere minute of exposure can make Vitamin C ineffective. So in order to avoid this, you have to be mindful of how you handle and store your Vitamin C skincare products. Your best bet is to keep them in a cold, dark place. Refrigerating isn’t necessary, but a well-closed drawer or a cabinet will do the job done.
There are several formulas, or types of Vitamin C that are used in skincare products, such as ester-C, or L-ascorbic acid. Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, or THD, is, however, the most stable lipid-soluble variant of Vitamin C, which makes it ideal for use in skincare.
If there was an antioxidant Olympics, Vitamin C would get the gold medal, but Vitamin A and its many derivatives will definitely nab the silver. One of the most effective, and therefore popular types of Vitamin A in skincare is retinol, Retin-A, and other retinoids. In fact, retinoids (such as isotretinoin) are the main active ingredients in some of the most powerful anti-acne and anti-scar medications in existence, such as Accutane.
The small molecular structure of retinol makes it super-effective when it comes to penetrating the skin and working its magic on a deeper level. Once it enters our skin, retinol acts as a powerful stimulant for collagen production, while helping skin cells repair themselves and grow. These properties make retinol, and Vitamin A, one of the most powerful antioxidants in skincare, often used to reduce wrinkles, repair severe scars, and overall make your skin look clear and youthful.
But to continue the theme of the antioxidant Olympics. If Vitamin C would win gold, and Vitamin A would win the silver, the bronze medal will definitely belong to Vitamin E. While Vitamin C and Vitamin A have properties that target specific processes on the skin, such as collagen production, Vitamin E and its oils are essential for ensuring the optimal functioning of our organs.
Naturally, this applies to the skin as well, since the skin is (believe it or not) actually the largest organ in the human body. Besides being a strong antioxidant, and kicking free radical butt, Vitamin E can also accelerate the skin’s ability to repair itself. Vitamin E can also serve as a reflective coating over the skin that offers mild protection from sunlight, making it a frequent addition in sunscreens. Additionally, Vitamin E finds use in thick creams, gels, and lotions designed to protect our skin, regenerate it, and even repair stretch marks.
While not a vitamin as such, resveratrol is still one of the most powerful antioxidants in existence. Often found in the skin of fruits such as grapes, berries, peanuts, tea, and our favorite, red wine, resveratrol is widely abundant in nature, and generally used as the main active ingredient in antioxidant supplements.
It’s no wonder that resveratrol is found in the outer shells of so many plants. It serves them as a shield, scavenging and destroying free radicals from the environment, frequently delivered from the sun’s strong UV rays, pollution, or insects. Additionally, resveratrol possesses strong anti-microbial properties, protecting plants from bacterial infections, and there is some indication that resveratrol can combat cancer as well. It is suspected that resveratrol aids the mitochondria and other deep structures within the cells, making our cells healthier and more resistant to damage and harmful mutations.
Ah, the good old days in college. When one could do all-nighters in a row, drink themselves blind, smoke like a Sultan and never feel any fatigue or consequences on the skin. Well, I guess we both wonder why that might be right?
The reason is the high presence of a less known, but nonetheless powerful antioxidant, called Coenzyme Q10. This substance is abundant in our bodies during our youth, but as we age, its levels gradually begin to drop.
Also known as ubiquinone, Coenzyme Q10 protects our skin from the appearance of wrinkles and sun damage, while fending off free radicals. Coenzyme Q10 is very easy to be absorbed by the skin, where it stimulates collagen production which, as we mentioned earlier, can make our skin healthier and more elastic.
All of these properties make Coenzyme Q10 frequently used in skincare products designed for topical use.
Most of the antioxidants we mentioned up to this point work their magic by entering the deeper layers of our skin. But what about the surface of our skin, also called the epidermis? The epidermis is actually crucial, because it forms what dermatologists call the skin barrier. As the apt name suggests, the skin barrier is the uppermost surface of our skin that protects our bodies against the infiltration of germs, environmental toxins, random microscopic dirt, and of course - the pesky free radicals.
The nature of the skin barrier makes it very exposed to damage and injuries. Which means that it needs a lot of help and nutrition in order to work efficiently and protect us from free radicals. And as you can guess, the passage of time and age make the epidermis less efficient. But here is when niacinamide, a powerful antioxidant also known as Vitamin B3, enters the picture.
By having several, but deeply systemic functions, niacinamide or Vitamin B3 helps keep our skin’s tone and texture, while reducing wrinkles and fine lines. Since niacinamide affects the surface layer of the skin too, it is often used in treating chronic skin disorders such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea. What makes Vitamin B3 even better is that it is water-soluble, making it suitable for all skin types without causing any side effects. Dermatologists often combine niacinamide with Vitamin C and Vitamin A, for an even more beneficial effect on our skin.
Remember resveratrol because it was found in wine? Well, here’s yet another antioxidant that’s not only found in wine, but chocolate as well. Polyphenols are plant-derived, coming from a wide selection of fruits and vegetables, most notably green tea and its leaves, and last but not least, cocoa. Polyphenols contain a great number of beneficial properties, possessing antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and even chemopreventive properties.
All of this makes polyphenols one of skincare’s favorite supplements, since their ingestion not only protects our skin from oxidative stress, but it can also inhibit cancer. If you needed even more reasons to enjoy some wine or chocolate, now you have them.
Flavonoids are yet another class of antioxidants that are derived from plants. Green and black teas make some of the most common sources for flavonoids, and people who drink these occasionally will have flavonoids in proper amounts.
Flavonoids, being antioxidants, clean our bodies from free radicals. But flavonoids can also reduce inflammation, which is good for people who suffer from chronic skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea or psoriasis too.
Additionally, flavonoids are known to absorb the sun’s harmful UV rays, protecting our body from harmful solar radiation and preventing photoaging. Finally, flavonoids also promote the production of collagen, which is necessary for keeping our skin soft and elastic.
We conclude our list of the best antioxidants for our skin with glutathione. A lesser-known antioxidant, glutathione serves as a powerful helper in the maintenance of the health of our internal, and vital organs. The brain, the liver, the kidneys, and last but not least, our largest organ, the skin, all need healthy levels of glutathione in order to be healthy and function properly.
Repairing the cells around the body, glutathione’s effects on our skin are better known for its lightening or bleaching properties. Initially considered a side-effect, glutathione’s ability to inhibit the production of melanin (melanogenesis) has made it very popular in the skincare and beauty industry.
Its antimelanogenic properties make glutathione the ideal antioxidant for treating dark spots, hyperpigmentation, or other forms of darkening of the skin. Additionally, glutathione rids our skin of toxins, and contributes to an overall smoother, silkier skin. As an oral supplement, glutathione can also combat liver disease and serve as a repairman for our other organs as well.
Well, having written this myself, I too feel the need to give my body all the precious antioxidants it deserves! From keeping our bodies healthy and strong, to making our skin elastic, clear, and healthy, antioxidants are the closest thing we have to a miracle cure.
So, no need to wait. Tasty fruits, vegetables, and beneficial skincare products are just waiting for us to reach for them. And as master Yoda once said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” I know what I’ll do.
This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances, and its goal is to offer a general view of the subject. In case you are suffering from a severe case of acne or another type of skin disorder or condition, you should consult with a dermatologist or a certified medical professional.