Dermatologist-Reviewed Articles

Everything You Need to Know About Antioxidants and Your Skin

Heart shaped kale on pink background -1 | Dermstore Blog

Most people know that antioxidants are an important part of any skin care routine, but how many of us know exactly what they do and how they work? Well, we’ve done our homework. We recently touched base with our medical director, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ashley Magovern, who sat down and answered all of our questions on the subject.

Dermstore: We know our skin needs antioxidant protection, but how exactly do antioxidants work?

Dr. Magovern: Antioxidants work by reversing and preventing free radical damage or “oxidative stress.” What are free radicals? Well, if you think back to your high school chemistry class, free radicals are those “free” or “unpaired” electrons that are flying around—they fly around and cause damage to your cells’ structure and genetic material (DNA). Free radicals are formed from environmental damage, which can result from the sun, pollution, toxins, tobacco and stress, to name a few sources. Antioxidants work by “scavenging” those loose electrons so that they cannot cause damage. Antioxidants also help repair existing damage and blunt the inflammatory response to the sun’s harmful rays.

So antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties. Why is that important?

Well, inflamed skin is usually red, swollen and uncomfortable. And who wants that? Anti-inflammatories work to calm and soothe inflamed skin. But more important, because inflamed skin prevents the regular skin repairing process, it can eventually lead to hyperpigmentation and acne. And long-term inflammation can cause cell damage, which results in wrinkles.

Do antioxidants serve multiple purposes?

By definition, all antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties. Antioxidants can help prevent sunburn, they can help prevent and reverse sun damage and photo-aging, and they can improve fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots. Some have anti-carcinogenic properties and may be able to prevent skin cancer. Some, like vitamin C, stimulate collagen production.

Speaking of vitamin C, there are so many different forms: L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C ester, ascorbyl palmitate, sodium ascorbyl phosphate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate and lipophilic vitamin C. Which one is the best?

Vitamin C is a favorite because it is well studied and it has been proven to have beneficial effects on the skin other than being an antioxidant, like boosting collagen production and fading dark spots. L-ascorbic acid is considered the most active form and the most studied in skin care, but it is very difficult to stabilize. The consumer has to be careful to purchase a product with a stabilized form of it. The other forms of vitamin C, like ascorbyl palmitate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, and the lipophilic (like tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate), are considered more stable and less irritating than the water soluble L-ascorbic acid, but I don’t think we know for sure if they offer the same skin benefits as L-ascorbic acid or what concentration is best. I am impressed with what I know of tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, and love Murad’s Active Radiance Serum, which uses this form.

There are other powerful and popular antioxidants, though.

Yes, definitely. More research is being done every day, and we are continuing to learn about other antioxidants, which may be more potent than vitamin C and have other beneficial effects on the skin, such as idebenone, coQ10, green tea and coffeeberry, among others.

Should we be using more than one antioxidant on our skin?

Yes, why not? The more the merrier, as long as there is no skin irritation. We know that vitamin C and E work better together and studies have shown that ferulic acid as well as phloretin, which are other antioxidants, may actually stabilize vitamin C and allow it work more effectively.

When should someone start using an antioxidant?

I don’t think it’s ever too early. I would suggest starting as a young adult or whenever you are disciplined enough to have a skin care routine. While many young adults may not need retinol-containing products yet, an antioxidant product is the perfect way to start taking care of your skin.

If antioxidants are so imperative to our complexions should we be using an antioxidant-enriched body lotion?

Yes, I think that would be great. There are not many products out there yet, but I routinely use my antioxidant products on my hands and forearms, which are exposed to the sun regularly and show signs of age and sun damage.

Is it just as important to eat fresh fruits and veggies loaded with antioxidants as it is to apply them topically, as far as healthy skin is concerned?

Absolutely. It may even be more important. I encourage my patients to eat a diet rich in antioxidants as well as omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. It not only helps with skin aging, but I see my acne patients benefit from it. Bright-colored foods are an easy way to know if you are eating well. If you can eat your fruit and vegetables raw, even better. I learned most of this from working with a pioneer in this field, one of my mentors, Dr. Murad. I am also a believer in oral supplements, such as vitamin C, D, E, B vitamins, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, resveratrol, coQ10 and pomegranate among others. 

Sr. Producer, Video Marketing

Lauren Salerno

Lauren is a content creator, beauty and fashion fanatic and DermStore’s video producer. After interning at WWD Beauty Biz when she was at New York University, Lauren knew she wanted to be in the beauty world—and she hasn’t looked back since. Her greatest love is traveling: She’s been all over the globe, but her two favorite spots are Thailand and Tanzania. Her must-have beauty items? Sunscreen and Kevyn Aucoin Volumizing Mascara.