How to Use Antioxidants for Skin Health

Antioxidants are used extensively in over-the-counter skincare products and cosmeceuticals. They are used topically to improve many cosmetic skin issues and are credited with having anti-aging and skin-protecting qualities.

Learn what science tells us about antioxidants and skin health, and how you can get the most value when choosing an antioxidant skincare product.

Antioxidant serum being dropped on a woman's finger; antioxidants for skin health
Adriano_CS / Getty Images

What Are Antioxidants?

The term antioxidant is a buzzword used throughout the health and beauty industry. However, many people aren't quite clear on what antioxidants actually are and why they're so beneficial to your health.

Antioxidants are a group of naturally occurring compounds that protect your cells from damage.

Your body makes some antioxidants on its own, but the vast majority of antioxidants you must get from the foods you eat or supplements.

Although, there is some indication that antioxidant supplements aren't as effective as getting antioxidants through your diet. Antioxidants are especially plentiful in fresh fruits and vegetables. They are important for the health of your entire body, not just your skin.

Antioxidants and Free Radicals

To get a full understanding of antioxidants, you also have to understand free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are missing an electron.

These unstable molecules are created through normal body processes like digestion. They are also produced when you're exposed to excess sun, pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, and more.

According to the free radical theory of aging, free radicals are responsible for creating inflammation and prematurely aging your body, including your skin. These unstable molecules go around stealing an electron from other molecules, damaging healthy cells in the process.

Antioxidants are the foil opposites of free radicals. They clean up free radicals by donating an electron. This essentially deactivates the free radical and prevents it from damaging cells.

Antioxidants give a protective effect against aging and disease.

Free radicals get a bad reputation, but they aren't entirely bad. For example, free radicals are used by the immune system to help fight off bacteria. So they are important to the way your body functions.

The problem occurs when there are too many free radicals compared to antioxidants. Without enough antioxidants to keep excess free radicals in check, they are free to damage cells.

Skin Care Benefits

Antioxidants are abundant in fresh, healthy foods. There's plenty of research that confirms eating a diet rich in antioxidants can help stave off aging and keep you healthier for longer.

Many skincare products incorporate antioxidants into their formulations to deliver the benefits of antioxidants directly to the skin. How effective topically applied antioxidants are is still a bit unclear. More in-depth research is currently being done, but so far, it seems that topical antioxidants may deliver a host of benefits.

  • Protection against UV damage: Sun damage is a huge aging factor of the skin. Antioxidants may help give a protective effect against UV damage when used along with sunscreen.
  • Calm inflammation: Free radicals by their very nature create inflammation. Antioxidants can help reduce inflammation and may have a soothing effect on the skin.
  • Slow premature aging: Topical antioxidants can make the skin look more youthful and protect against extrinsic aging (for instance, premature aging caused by external factors like chronic sun exposure, smoking, pollution, and more). Antioxidants don't seem to slow intrinsic (chronological) aging, however.

Drawbacks of Antioxidants

The biggest drawback of using antioxidants in skincare products is that there is no guarantee that the product is able to deliver any type of results.

The problem is two-fold. First, what works in a lab doesn't necessarily translate into the real world. While many studies can show certain skincare ingredients have antioxidant qualities, how much of that is actually going to be available and beneficial to your skin is not clear. Much depends on the formulation of the product itself.

Antioxidants must be absorbed by the skin in order for them to do any good. How well they are absorbed depends largely on how the skincare product is formulated.

The second problem is that antioxidants themselves are pretty fragile. They can easily become inactivated and, therefore, useless in your skincare product. Antioxidants are easily degraded when exposed to light, air, and temperature swings.

Something currently being studied is how to formulate products to best deliver the most potent antioxidants to the skin.

Most Effective Skincare Antioxidants

Antioxidants aren't just one ingredient, so you won't see the word antioxidant in your skincare product's ingredients list. Antioxidants instead refer to a broad group of ingredients that work in the same way: fighting free radical damage.

The ingredients below are some of the more well-studied antioxidants used in skincare:

  • Vitamin C: This is one of the most widely used and well-studied skin care antioxidants. You may also find it listed as L-ascorbic acid or ester-C. Vitamin C helps stimulate collagen production and is the best antioxidant for fading dark marks. It's notoriously unstable, though, which can be mitigated somewhat by using dark, preferably air-lock, packaging.
  • Vitamin E: Besides being an antioxidant, vitamin E also helps speed healing and is moisturizing.
  • Ferulic acid: Topical ferulic acid may protect against sun damage. It's most effective when used along with topical vitamins C and E.
  • Retinol: Retinol is a form of vitamin A and is arguably the most effective over-the-counter (OTC) ingredient for reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol also speeds cell turnover and smooths the skin.
  • Coenzyme Q10: Coenzyme Q10 is one of the antioxidants that your body manufactures. It is naturally found in the skin but diminishes as we age. Coenzyme Q10 may improve skin elasticity and texture.
  • Botanical extracts (phytoextracts): There are a plethora of botanical extracts used in skincare products for their antioxidant properties. The most common include green tea or white tea, coffee, calendula, and rosemary, but there are many more. Botanical extracts are incredibly common skincare ingredients and are often incorporated into blends.
  • Niacinamide: Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide improves skin tone and texture, and helps fades dark marks.
  • Resveratrol: A compound found in grapes, berries, red wine, and tea, resveratrol is good for UV protection and is anti-inflammatory. It may also boost collagen and elastin.
  • Curcumin: A relative newcomer in OTC skincare products, curcumin is a polyphenol found in the spice turmeric. It's believed to deliver anti-inflammatory and skin brightening properties without staining the skin (tumeric is known for its bold yellow color).

Choosing a Skin Care Product

There is no shortage of antioxidant skincare products on the market today. In fact, your current skincare regimen probably contains at least one product with antioxidant ingredients — they're that common and popular.

So, you've got choices — maybe so many that it's overwhelming. Here are a few tips to help you choose a product.

  1. What's your end goal? It's best to start with the end in mind. Do you want to fade dark spots, minimize fine lines, or protect against sun damage? That will give you a start on which product form to look for.
  2. Look for a product that contains multiple antioxidants. Studies suggest that skincare products containing several different antioxidant ingredients offer higher antioxidant activity and are therefore more effective.
  3. Experiment with different products until you find one you like. The brand name isn't as important as how the product feels on your skin. If you like the way it feels, you're more likely to use it regularly. And because antioxidant products work only when used long term, you'll need to use them consistently in order to get good results.
  4. Consider the other product ingredients. Antioxidants aren't the only ingredients that have skin benefits. There are many other anti-aging skincare ingredients to look for in your OTC skincare products that can improve the look and feel of the skin. Hyaluronic acid is amazing for hydrating dry skin. Glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid all brighten the complexion and fight aging as well. Look at the product as a whole to see if it fits what your skin needs.
  5. Need suggestions? Ask a pro. If you're still feeling overwhelmed, you can ask your dermatologist or an esthetician for a few product suggestions. (Be advised, though, that some estheticians may only suggest products sold at their own salons.)

A Word From Verywell

Be realistic about what an antioxidant skin care product can actually do for your skin. It can help the skin look brighter and feel smoother, but antioxidants aren't going to produce huge changes overnight. You're going to get the best results with long-term use.

If you're looking for marked improvement of sun damage, fine lines, and wrinkles, prescription topical retinoids like Retin-A or Renova are very effective. They can give you better results in a shorter period of time compared to an OTC antioxidant skincare product. Chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and laser treatments are other procedures to consider if you're wanting more pronounced improvement.

Whatever your skincare routine looks like, though, remember to include sunscreen. It's never too late to start protecting your skin from the sun.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.