October 04, 2017 4 min read

If you’ve ever shopped for anti-aging skincare products, you’ve most likely seen labels with claims like “rich in antioxidants to combat free radicals” or “anti-aging antioxidants”. While it’s clear that using antioxidants to fight off free radicals can benefit the skin, many people don’t know the mechanism behind how these ingredients work. Plus, did you know that certain antioxidants are better for the skin than others? To learn more about the role of antioxidants in skincare, keep reading below about what free radicals and antioxidants are, as well as which ones are best for use in skincare.

What are free radicals?

In order to understand the role of antioxidants in skincare, it’s first necessary to learn about free radicals. A free radical, also known as an oxidant, is any atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in the atomic orbital.Normally,an atomic orbital is capable of holding two electrons, but free radicals only have one unpaired electron, which makes the free radical unstable and highly reactive. If a free radical contains an oxygen molecule it is referred to as a reactive oxygen species (ROS). Free radicals are caused by numerous factors, such as ultraviolet radiation, environmental pollution, stress, alcohol, cigarette smoke, etc.


Free radicals are dangerous because they are highly reactive. In an attempt to become more stable, free radicals will either donate their single electron to another molecule or accept an electron from another molecule. Ultimately, this leads to a chain of events that rips electrons off all nearby molecules. This is problematic because free radicals can rips electrons off ourimportant cellular structures, like DNA, proteins, carbohydrates, or the cell membrane, which damages the cell and may even lead to cell death. Altogether, the damage to cells caused by free radicals is known as oxidative stress.Thefree radical theory of aging (FRTA) states that organisms age because cells accumulate oxidative stress caused by free radical damage over time. Fortunately, antioxidants are the body’s natural defense mechanism against free radical damage.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are also known as reducing agents, which means they can donate an electron to another atom or molecule. By donating electrons to free radicals, antioxidants are able to limit oxidative damage caused by free radicals.The International Dermal Institute explains, “Antioxidants help prevent such damage by giving free radicals what they want before they attack your cells.” This is important because when oxidative damage accumulates in the skin the result is inflammation, uneven skin tone, and premature signs of aging. Therefore, it’s important to reinforce your skin by eating a diet rich in antioxidant foods and also by applying antioxidant-rich skincare products.


There are hundreds of different antioxidants that can be obtained from foods such as fruits, vegetables, spices, etc.In his bookThe Antioxidants,Richard A. Passwater, PhD, says that humans have one of the longest natural lifespans in the animal kingdom, most likely because of the wealth of antioxidants in our diet.


Ideally, the body should be able to keep oxidative stress under control by maintaining a balance of antioxidants to free radicals. However, this balance can often be disrupted by factors likepoor nutrition and exposure to toxins, which deplete the body’s supply of antioxidants. When this happens,oxidative processes can wreak havoc in the body, manifesting as accelerated aging, damaged or mutated cells, an overloaded immune system, and the activation of harmful genes within DNA.

What are the best antioxidants for the skin?

As the role of antioxidants in skincare is being studied more and more, researchers are starting some antioxidants are better at protecting the skin than others. An abundant amount of antioxidants exist that can benefit the skin, but here are a few of the very best that have the most supporting evidence:


  • Vitamin A (retinol)
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • Vitamin E (alpha tocopherol)
  • Resveratrol
  • Green Tea

Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidants that can be used topically in to treat and prevent signs of aging as well as hyperpigmentation. Vitamin C exerts many beneficial effects when applied topically, including protecting the skin from UV-induced ROS damage. According to theIndian Dermatology Online Journal, vitamin C is equally effective against both UVA and UVB rays. Protecting against both types of rays is important because both have harmful effects on the skin: UVB rays lead to sunburn, whereas UVA rays penetrate deep into the dermis, destroying collagen, elastin, and other important elements. In addition to protecting against the destruction of collagen, vitamin C is also essential for newcollagen biosynthesis: it serves as a cofactor for enzymes that are responsible for stabilizing and cross-linking the collagen molecules. Overall, the ability for vitamin C to increase collagen levels will help to treat and prevent signs of aging.


Some antioxidants are even better when they are used in combination, such as vitamins C and E. Along with glutathione, lipoic acid, and coenzyme Q10, vitamins C and E are known as network antioxidants, which means they work together in synergy. For example, if vitamin E donates an electron to neutralize a free radical, vitamin C can donate one of its own electrons to vitamin E to “recycle” it.


All in all, when searching for a new anti-aging skincare regimen we highly recommend looking for products that contain antioxidants. The research is clear that the role of antioxidants in skincare is imperative for restoring and maintaining that perfect glow you’ve been longing for.