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Antioxidants Decoded: What They Are and Why They're Key to Great Skin

Most of us are familiar with the idea of antioxidants, but, like “the cloud,” we have no idea what they do or how they actually work when we really stop to think about it. While we’re going about our lives blissfully unaware, these small but powerful molecules are playing a critical role in maintaining our skin and overall health.

Antioxidants help the body combat free radicals, or unstable molecules, that can develop as a result of factors ranging from exposure to UV rays and environmental pollution to poor nutrition and the byproduct of natural biological processes. When free radicals hang around in our bodies, they can lead to inflammation and disease as well as increased signs of skin aging and hyperpigmentation. But there’s no reason to panic – antioxidants are ready to come to the rescue.

What’s So Bad About Free Radicals?

The source of all of the trouble is that free radicals have just one electron – and electrons prefer to be coupled up. The solo electrons are like guys on Tinder who swipe right on everyone. They comb through the body looking for another electron to pair with so they can become stable or whole again, and they’re not at all picky about who they choose. This process leaves behind “debris” in the body, as dermatologist Dr. Alicia Zalka, MD explains.

This disruptive activity results in imbalances that cause stress on the body and “damage to cells, proteins, and DNA,” according to dermatologist Dr. Hadley King. “This damage can lead to inflammation, aging, and even cancer.”

Free radicals can also harm skin cells, particularly by causing the breakdown of collagen, which is a critical component in the structure and protection of your skin. When this protein is weakened, your skin can develop dark spots and increased signs of aging (think fine lines and wrinkles, sagging skin, and a dry and dull tone).  

But antioxidants can prevent this damage from happening by neutralizing the free radicals in your body and skin. In the simplest terms, antioxidants, which are found in certain fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other natural substances, have electrons to spare, and they’re generous with them.

It’s nearly impossible to completely avoid free radicals in life, but if you consume antioxidants through your diet and in the skincare products you choose, they will come to the rescue and hand out electrons to the greedy free radicals, in turn protecting the healthy cells in your body from harm. When balance is restored, your skin will look more vibrant, and you will feel healthier.

What Antioxidants Should I Look for In My Skincare?

If you’ve ever left an avocado out and watched it brown within a few hours, you’ve witnessed the oxidation that happens with exposure to free radicals. But if you squeeze lemon or lime on the avocado, you can keep it from browning as quickly. That kitchen trick works because citrus acts as an antioxidant for the avocado. While skin damage takes a little longer to occur than damage to the avocado, the same protective process occurs when you use antioxidant-rich skincare products.

“For the past two decades, antioxidants have been widely accepted as beneficial ingredients to seek in our diets and in our skincare routines,” Dr. Zalka says. There are now many options available for skincare, some more researched than others. The most powerful sources of antioxidants for your skin include:

  • Vitamin C: While all vitamins are also antioxidants, the most famous of these when it comes to skincare is vitamin C. This ingredient is a well-known weapon against aging that helps protect the skin from sun damage. It works to “decrease UV-induced wrinkles, collagen degradation, and discoloration,” Dr. King says.

  • Ascorbyl Glucoside: This ingredient is like a superpowered form of vitamin C, offering a potent dose of antioxidants in a more stable form than its more well-known relative. “I find this ‘kinder, gentler’ form of vitamin C extremely useful,” Dr. Zalka says. “I recommend it in combination with use of retinol or retinoic acid products for anti-aging (do not use them one on top of the other; I suggest ascorbyl glucoside in the daytime and retinol at bedtime). On its own, I find it helps those who suffer with rosacea and acne.” It also supports collagen production and helps prevent and treat hyperpigmentation. 

  • Vitamin E: Naturally produced by skin, vitamin E can often be found in formulas that also contain vitamin C because the two ingredients work in tandem and “stabilize each other chemically,” Dr. Zalka says. While vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, Dr. King notes that it is also a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis, so be mindful of this ingredient if you have sensitive skin.

  • Niacinamide:  Dermatologists are quick to sing the praise of this buzzy ingredient that is derived from the vitamin B3. “[Niacinamide] may be the winner for my ‘all-time favorite’ antioxidant because of its variety of beneficial offerings. I recommend it for those with rosacea, acne, ultraviolet damage, wrinkles, inflammation, lentigines (brown spots), and dry skin,” Dr. Zalka says. According to Dr. King, “You'll notice some effects immediately, although most of the studies on niacinamide showed results after 8-12 weeks.”

  • Ferulic Acid: Ferulic acid is the best friend and hype woman to all other antioxidants; it helps to further stabilize them, and it’s also powerful when paired with SPF. “I recommend using an antioxidant serum (such as ferulic acid) every morning, followed by a moisturizer with SPF 30 or higher and broad-spectrum protection,” Dr. King says.

  • Retinol: This well-known ingredient is derived from vitamin A, which, like its vitamin family members, is a powerful antioxidant. Retinol is famous for its anti-aging properties – encouraging cell turnover and the production of collagen, preventing wrinkles and brightening skin, and tackling acne and dark spots – which is why it has become the go-to ingredient for many dermatologists. While the benefits of retinol are many, there are two notes of caution: it is not safe for use during pregnancy, and it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

  • Resveratrol: This antioxidant is a polyphenol, a class of compounds naturally found in certain foods including berries, grapes, and dark chocolate. These powerful antioxidants act as the front-line defense for skin, and resveratrol is particularly effective at combating skin damage, including discoloration and sun damage.

  • Other plant-based ingredients: Things like lemon balm, ginger root extract, and grapeseed oil are also antioxidant rich and each has its own unique benefits. Despite its name, lemon balm is actually in the mint – not the citrus – family, and it has natural anti-viral properties. (A word of caution: studies show that lemon balm should be avoided if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.) Ginger root extract can help reduce the appearance of dark spots, smooth skin, and give it radiance. Grape seed extract is highly moisturizing and has an abundance of flavonoids, the same substance that gives red wine, coffee, tea, and chocolate their unique health advantages.

Hero Antioxidants in Veracity Skincare Products:

Prevention Is Key – Think Diet and Sunscreen

When it comes to antioxidants, the more the better, and it’s important to think about incorporating these lifesavers into your diet as well as your skincare routine. Dr. Zalka says that you should think of exposing yourself to antioxidants as you would to hydration: of course you’ll drink water, but you’ll also use moisturizers and oils to externally boost your skin’s hydration. “Systemic antioxidants help neutralize free radicals throughout the body, including the skin, while topical antioxidants offer additional targeted defense for the skin,” Dr. King says.

Most non-processed foods contain at least some antioxidants, but if you’re not sure where to start, look to darkly colored fruits and vegetables. “Beets, broccoli, cabbage, kale, berries, artichokes, to name only a few, are all chock full of goodness for our skin and bodies,” Dr. Zalka says.

You can also get an extra sprinkle of these healthy free radical fighters by cooking with plenty of herbs and spices. While most options have some antioxidants, the highest levels are found in cloves, oregano, turmeric, cinnamon, sage, and rosemary. Nuts also a good source of antioxidants.

In addition to eating antioxidant-rich foods, the go-to dermatologist advice holds true when it comes to preventing free radicals: always wear sunscreen. As Dr. King explains, “Sunscreens help to protect the skin from UV radiation. But if these ingredients are combined with antioxidants like ferulic acid, then the protection has been shown to be greater because the antioxidants help to neutralize the free radicals from UV rays.”

When you adopt an antioxidant-rich lifestyle, you can help protect your skin and body from damage and signs of aging, while beginning to repair the harm that free radicals have already caused. These molecules may be little and unassuming, but they can affect every aspect of your health. As Dr. Zalka says, “When your diet is full of these health benefits, your digestion, skin, hair, eyes, muscles all reap the rewards.”

Our Experts

Alicia Zalka, MD

Board-certified dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep

Dr. Hadley King, MD

Board-certified dermatologist in New York City

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