We can’t really talk about skin care and skin health without at least mentioning the word “antioxidants” and their many benefits. But what exactly are antioxidants and what do they do for our skin? To best explain this, we will have to first explain another term: free radicals.
Free radicals are molecules that can cause significant damage to the skin cells, accelerate ageing, and damage the skin barrier. Antioxidants are basically free radical neutralizers.
Skin cells are constantly exposed to the harmful effects of free radicals which are unstable and highly reactive molecules that steal electrons from other sources, damaging cells in the process. And although the skin has natural defence mechanisms against free radicals, it is susceptible to their effects when they are produced in excessive amounts. So, when the balance between free radicals and antioxidants is lost, we experience oxidative stress, which plays a role in premature aging of the skin, hyperpigmentation, triggering inflammatory conditions like eczema and acne, as well as skin cancers.
But where do free radicals come from and how to avoid them? Free radicals form either from normal essential metabolic processes in the human body or from external sources such as exposure to X-rays, ozone, air pollutants, industrial chemicals and probably the biggest one – exposure to UVA and UVB rays.
That’s where antioxidants in skin-care come in. To mitigate the negative effects of free radicals on our skin we must first of all religiously wear sunscreen and second use skincare that is specifically formulated with antioxidants.
Thankfully many common beauty ingredients are also potent antioxidants but keep in mind that not all products are created equal, formulating a product that has antioxidant abilities is challenging as the antioxidant ingredients have to have a high enough anti-oxidative capability, be at a high enough concentration in the product and be stable enough not to degrade over time.
Here is an overview of the most potent antioxidants in skincare that we know of to date:
Most common forms of Vitamin A are retinol, tretinoin, and retinaldehyde. Vitamin A has multiple functions, such as increasing healthy cellular turnover, exfoliating the skin and improving age spots, repairing cellular structure of the skin, decreasing sebum production, and eliciting formation of collagen.
Despite its stellar reputation Vitamin A can be very irritating and drying and many people can’t tolerate using it. It is best used at night as it actually causes skin sun sensitivity despite its potent antioxidant abilities.
For those with more sensitive skin and people who seek natural alternatives a botanical ingredient called Bakuchiol has been shown to mimic the properties of retinol without causing the adverse reactions. Bakuchiol is derived from the seeds of the Babchi plant and it’s an excellent free radical scavenger, it has also shown amazing anti-acne and anti-ageing properties.
Ascorbic acid is the most potent form of vitamin C, a very strong antioxidant that binds and removes harmful free radicals from the skin, like those produced from exposure to ultraviolet radiation and environmental pollutants, it helps prevent aging skin, including lightening brown spots, and it stimulates collagen production. One of the most studied skincare ingredients, Ascorbic Acid has proven to be a very effective used topically but it is notoriously unstable in formulations, it oxidises very quickly when in contact with oxygen and light and it rapidly degrades, losing it’s potency.
There are however more stable forms of Vitamin C like Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate (MAP), Scorbyl 6 Palmitate, Tetraisopalmitoyl ascorbic acid, and Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate.
Vitamin E, or tocopherol, has been shown to combat sun damage, scientific studies have demonstrated that vitamin E treatment can reduce UV-induced photodamage, decrease the risk of skin cancers, and stabilize the skin barrier in addition to its antioxidant properties.
Also known as Niacinamide, Vitamin B3 is one of the most powerful antioxidants in dermatology today. Studies have also shown that topical application of niacinamide has many potential skin benefits, including improved skin hydration, reduced fine lines and wrinkles, decreased brown spots, improved skin redness/blotchiness, and better skin elasticity. Niacinamide also supports the skin barrier and it regulates and stabilizes oil production in the skin, making it one of the top favourite ingredients for people with oily skin.
Niacinamide is very well tolerated by the skin and adverse reactions are rare.
Naturally found in berries, Japanese Knotweed, and the skin of red grapes resveratrol possesses amazing antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties.
It has been shown to preserve dermal collagen, and may be effective in enhancing skin tissue hydration, it stimulates skin’s cellular renewal, and helps increase skin’s thickness, and reduces skin hyperpigmentation.
Moreover, Resveratrol has the unique ability to assist in disturbing the formation of p. acnes biofilm. The acne forming bacteria is capable of forming a biofilm which diminishes the efficacy of treatments and can result in the condition to keep coming back. This makes resveratrol invaluable ingredient for the preparation of anti-acne products.
Antioxidant Activity of Plant Extracts
Plants are a rich source of biologically active substances that have a significant effect on human skin The free-radical scavenging ability and antioxidant properties of plants are associated with the presence of components such as polyphenols, tocopherols, carotenoids, ascorbic acid, and macromolecules (including polysaccharides and peptides), as well as components of essential oils.
This polyphenol antioxidant is found in turmeric root. Curcumin helps decrease inflammation, accelerates wound healing, prevents oily skin and acne, fights free radicals, and is photo-protective, anti-aging and anti-microbial
Green Tea Polyphenols
Green tea is probably the most studied plant-based antioxidant. The main active ingredients of green tea extract are polyphenols called catechins that have multiple antioxidant effects, as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties. Green tea also helps reduce redness and inflammation and it’s especially ideal for those with sensitive skin.
A relatively new ingredients in skincare Astaxanthin is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after compounds with superior antioxidant and skin protective abilities. It is naturally found in red algae, salmon and certain foods.
Astaxanthin protects against UV rays, repairs DNA damage, Enhances the immune system (when taken orally), fights wrinkles and fine lines, protects against hyperpigmentation, and fights free radicals.