Selling cosmetics and supplements with ‘miracle’ anti-aging ingredients is the bread and butter of the beauty industry. And one look at the facial cream aisle will tell you how popular antioxidants have become in recent years. But is using antioxidants for your skin really as good as it's cracked up to be?
Getting your first wrinkles whilst you’re still enjoying your 20s can come as an unpleasant surprise. Although it’s perfectly normal for the skin to start showing signs of aging this early on, it can make many people feel anxious about the inevitable passage of time. Beauty brands can also put a hefty price tag on these allegedly miraculous anti-aging products, so knowing which ingredients can truly help your skin to flourish can save you a lot of stress and money.
In this article, we’ll look at the science behind using antioxidants for skin, and what several experienced skin experts have to say. If you're looking for the best dietary sources of antioxidants, you can have a look at 10 antioxidant foods to include in your diet for our roundup.
How do antioxidants work?
To understand what antioxidants are and how they work, we need to explain what free radicals are. When our bodies come into contact with biological and environmental stressors, such as air pollution, tobacco smoke, ultraviolet rays or harmful bacteria and viruses, they respond by generating these highly bioactive compounds. Since free radicals miss one or more electrons in their atomic structure, they will ‘steal’ electrons from other molecules until they get more stable. This process, called oxidative stress, can cause extensive damage to the DNA strands and cell membranes in our bodies.
It may sound counterintuitive, but we do need a certain degree of oxidative stress. Without it, our bodies would struggle to fight off infections or remove faulty cells. However when this process becomes excessive, it can lead to many adverse health outcomes. That’s when antioxidants step in.
Antioxidants is a term used to describe compounds that can counteract free radicals by giving up some of their own electrons and in turn, protecting our cells from damage. Our bodies naturally produce some of these important compounds, but many of them need to be ingested with foods or applied topically.
What do antioxidants do for your skin?
Nutrition is a major factor when it comes to skin health. We need a host of different nutrients to keep it in peak condition, including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and phytonutrients. Since our skin routinely comes into contact with countless environmental and biological stressors, antioxidants play a vital role in maintaining its health and youthful appearance. Check out our 5-day easy Mediterranean diet meal plan to get your nutrition in check.
Free radicals are able to break down skin’s collagen, interfere with natural repair processes, and trigger inflammation. According to a review published in The Journal of Dermatological Science, these harmful compounds significantly contribute to skin aging by advancing the development of wrinkles, uneven skin tone, atypical pigmentation and acne breakouts. They also play a significant role in triggering melasma, a skin condition characterized by brown, blue or gray patches or spots, usually located around the face and neck area.
Dr. Julia Tzu, MD, FAAD, Founder and Medical Director of Wall Street Dermatology, points out that antioxidants can be an effective remedy to this issue. “Antioxidants help with scavenging free radicals in the skin that cause cellular damage and inflammation,” she says. “Routine antioxidant usage may help reduce cellular damage and inflammation that leads to skin cancer formation and signs of aging.”
A significant amount of oxidative stress in skin can be attributed to UV exposure.
“Antioxidants function as powerfully protective adjuncts to sunscreen that boost an individual’s protection from damage induced by exposure to UV radiation and exposure to other common pollutants,” explains Dr. Julie Karen, dermatologist at CompleteSkinMD clinic. “Ideally, products containing antioxidants should be applied daily beneath a broad-spectrum sunscreen – or one can opt for a sunscreen that incorporates antioxidant technology into the product.”
According to an article in The International Journal of Molecular Sciences, many plants produce secondary metabolites to protect themselves from excessive radiation, such as phenolic compounds, ascorbic acids, carotenoids and tocopherols, to name just a few. These substances to a certain extent will exert similar antioxidant properties in our bodies.
So is it better to focus on getting your antioxidants from dietary sources or should you focus on applying them topically? Experts agree that both routes can work in your favor.
“It is best to digest them with food because this way they would benefit the whole body, including the gut and heart,” says Dr. Anton Alexandroff, a Doctify-reviewed dermatologist. “However the most efficient way to protect skin is to apply them topically because this way higher concentrations are archived locally in the skin. This is especially true in protecting the skin surface from UV – less so for the protection of collagen because it is situated deeper and it is more difficult for antioxidants to penetrate skin to a sufficient depth when applied topically.”
Dr Tzu points out that the effectiveness of a particular antioxidant may depend on the treatment it’s used for. “For targeted superficial skin related concerns, topical application provides a more focused approach, given concentrated delivery to the site of concern. Ingestion may provide benefits to overall health, including skin, but effects are less targeted to skin.”
What are the best antioxidants for your skin?
Known for its ability to strengthen our immune system, Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant that maintains the health and integrity of our skin.
“Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that helps to decrease hyperpigmentation and promotes collagen production,” says Dr. Tzu.
According to a review published in the Nutrients journal, vitamin C is one of the most crucial factors when it comes to the production of skin’s collagen and protection against UV-induced skin damage. It can also reduce the appearance of dark spots by blocking the excessive production of pigments in our skin. When applied with creams or serums, vitamin C can regulate the sebum production and there’s even some evidence that it may reduce the visibility of acne lesions.
According to Dr. Alexandroff, “alpha tocopherol or vitamin E is the most efficient fat soluble antioxidant that protects cell membranes from oxidation”.
Multiple studies have demonstrated how this micronutrient preserves the integrity of skin lipid components and reduces the risk of developing autoimmune skin conditions, such as atopic eczema (itchy, cracked and sore skin) and psoriasis.
Particularly when applied with creams and balms, vitamin E can protect against sunburn, excessive pigmentation and even skin cancer, as described in the Drug Metabolism Reviews journal.
Vitamin D is vital to maintaining the health of our bones and strengthening our immune system. A lesser known fact is that this nutrient can also help to protect our skin against photo-induced damage and inflammation. According to a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, active metabolites of vitamin D regulate the growth of keratinocytes, which are the most dominant cell types in skin, responsible for healing bruised and damaged tissues. Vitamin D can also stop DNA damage in its tracks, delaying the aging processes and reducing the risk of developing skin cancers.
Vitamin B3 (niacinamide)
Vitamin B3 (also known as nicotinic acid, niacin or niacinamide) helps to regulate blood lipid levels, reduce blood pressure, boost brain function and increase energy levels. It’s also an important antioxidant for skin health.
“Niacinamide is a potent antioxidant that helps to decrease hyperpigmentation and redness, strengthen the skin barrier and reduce inflammation,” explains Dr. Tzu. When ingested with food or taken with supplements, niacinamide lowers the levels of oxidative stress and inflammatory responses in skin cells, contributing to a stronger skin barrier, as described in the Antioxidants journal.
Whereas when applied topically, vitamin B3 tends to be effective at treating acne, hyperpigmentation, atopic dermatitis and rosacea, as suggested by scientists from the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.
Vitamin A and retinoids
Vitamin A, also known as retinol can also offer many benefits to our skin. As a strong antioxidant, vitamin A protects against harmful UV radiation, potentially improving the appearance of wrinkles and saggy skin.
According to a review published in the Cells journal, vitamin A plays an important role in reducing the risk of developing skin cancer, acne and psoriasis too. However, it’s worth noting that retinoids applied topically may cause irritant reactions, such as burning or scaling of the skin.
Astaxanthin is produced naturally by a number of bacteria, microalgae and yeasts – it’s also the pigment that gives salmons their characteristic pink color. According to a review published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology journal, this compound can be particularly useful at preventing skin diseases and speeding up its repair processes. The research is ongoing, but there’s some evidence that combining topical and oral doses of astaxanthin can be effective at locking the moisture in skin and smoothing fine wrinkles.
Resveratrol is a type of a polyphenolic antioxidant found mostly in red grapes, red wine, grape juice, peanuts, cocoa, and berries. Most studies have looked at this compound in relation to its beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, but evidence suggests that polyphenols like resveratrol can also offer protection against photodamage, skin infections and skin cancer, particularly when ingested with food or dietary supplements.
“Polyphenols like resveratrol, flavonoids and green tea extract actives are very potent antioxidants that help with reducing the signs of aging and inflammation, as well as protecting the skin against cancer and photodamage,” explains Dr. Tzu.
Green tea polyphenols
You’ve probably heard of the wide-ranging health benefits linked to green tea consumption. One of the most widely consumed beverages worldwide, it’s also a rich source of polyphenolic antioxidants with a powerful anti-wrinkle effect.
“They are one of the most potent and formally studied antioxidants”, agrees Dr. Karen. According to a review published in the Nutrients journal, green tea polyphenols can neutralize free radicals, increase the rate of collagen and elastin fiber production, as well as reduce the levels of collagen degrading enzymes in our skin. They can also potentially slow the development of skin cancers.
You can get a good deal of these polyphenols with green tea infusions, but if you’re not a fan of their earthy flavor, there are many dietary supplements available as well. Many cosmetics include them in their ingredient lists too.
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Anna Gora is a health writer at Live Science, having previously worked across Coach, Fit&Well, T3, TechRadar and Tom's Guide. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach with nearly 10 years of professional experience. Anna holds a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health from the University of Bristol, as well as various health coaching certificates. She is passionate about empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.