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Do I need antioxidants on my skin?

An antioxidant serum wont magically change the look of your skin, but your skin will thank you for applying one. Antioxidants are key ingredients in preventing skin ageing, not in treating damage that is already done. In other words, the aim is to prevent wrinkles and other age-related skin changes, not treat them.

First, how does the process of ageing work?

It’s worth explaining the process of ageing first to help you understand exactly why antioxidants are useful in our skin care routine.

Skin ageing is partially ‘in your genes’, and partially ‘in your hands’. The ageing of the skin that is solely dependent on age is known as ‘intrinsic or chronological ageing’. Even if you would live in a stress-free, UV-filtered, air-purified, golden cage and eat kale and drink celery juice all day, your skin would still get saggy and wrinkly over time. This process of intrinsic ageing accelerates in your late twenties - early thirties. Luckily, around the time we are getting wiser and often starting to optimise our lifestyle. The part of ageing that is ‘in our hands’ is the result of lifestyle and environmental factors and known as ‘extrinsic ageing’. Sun exposure is the primary extrinsic factor responsible for skin ageing and accounts for about 80% of facial ageing. (You must feel uncomfortable reading this without sunscreen on your face, better quickly run to your bathroom and get on that sunscreen). Other extrinsic factors include smoking, pollution, chronic lack of sleep, chronic stress, poor nutrition and excessive alcohol consumption.

Think of the difference of skin in sun-protected areas versus sun-exposed areas For example, the skin on the inner upper arm versus the outer upper arm in middle-aged people. Or a more extreme example: try to visualise the skin on the facial cheeks and the skin on the butt cheeks in an elderly person. The skin on the butt cheeks and the inner arms has not been exposed as much to extrinsic ageing factors and hence will look less damaged over time compared to sun-exposed skin.

Multiple changes appear in the ageing skin including:

  • the reduced ability of certain skin cells to proliferate (called ‘cellular senescence’) leading to rough-textured, dull skin,

  • the breakdown of structural elements such as elastin and collagen leading to saggy, wrinkly skin

Research on skin ageing proposes different molecular mechanisms that are behind these intrinsic and extrinsic changes and one of them is the ‘oxidative stress’ model.

Normal physiological processes in our body, such as breathing, produce ‘reactive oxygen species (ROS)’. These are usually efficiently eliminated by our body’s own antioxidant defense system. However, if we produce too many, our own system becomes saturated and it is then that ROS can become harmful to our body. One kind of ROS is especially damaging, those with an unpaired electron known as ‘free radicals’. The imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants is known as ‘oxidative stress’ and will lead to cell and tissue damage resulting in ageing of the skin. An example of this ‘free radical’ induced damage is an increase in certain enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) which contribute to elastin and collagen degeneration leading to sagging of the skin. You could compare it with broken or bent tent poles, spells disaster for your tent, no?

Ultraviolet radiation, smoking and pollution lead to additional ROS production resulting in ‘oxidative stress’. Also, as we get older, our natural antioxidant system weakens and cannot efficiently eliminate excessive free radicals anymore. Here is where adding antioxidants in your skin care comes in the game.

What will antioxidants do?

Applying antioxidants on the skin will help our body’s own antioxidant defense system. They help to neutralise these excessive free radicals which otherwise would cause damage. We do not completely want to eliminate all ROS but we want to restore the body’s balance. Of note, excessive free radicals are not only implicated in the process of skin ageing but also in the cause and development of various skin conditions, as well as the onset of skin cancer.

Now that you know why to add antioxidants in your skin care routine, it might be useful to know which molecules contain antioxidant action in skin care. There are many different naturally derived antioxidants.

Which antioxidants to look for in skin care?

I have divided the antioxidants to look out for in skincare in 4 different categories:

Vitamins:

  • Vitamin C, look out for ‘L-ascorbic acid’ on the ingredient list as this is the most powerful form of vitamin C

  • Vitamin E, the most biologically active form is called ‘alpha-tocopherol’ so look out for this in the product ingredient list

  • Niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide, is a form of vitamin B3

  • Vitamin A , look out for ‘retinol’, ‘retinaldehyde’, ‘hydroxypinacolone retinoate/granactive retinoid’, ‘retinoic acid/tretinoin’ on the ingredient list

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are a heterogeneous group of naturally occurring molecules distributed in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wine, tea, cocoa, and coffee

  • ferulic acid, from whole grains and many vegetables and fruits. It can boost the effects of other antioxidants, it particularly enhances the benefits of Vitamin C and E

  • grape seed extract

  • resveratrol, extracted from grapes skin

  • green tea extract Epigallocatechin-gallate

  • silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle

  • ginkgo biloba leaf extract

  • caffeic acid, from coffee!

  • quercetin

  • curcumin

  • lutein and zeaxanthin, both naturally occurring carotenoids found in many different vegetables and fruits

  • lycopene, a carotenoid found in tomatoes

Minerals

  • Zinc

  • Selenium

  • Copper

  • Magnesium is not an antioxidant by itself but a cofactor of several antioxidant enzymes, including the super important superoxide dismutase

Other

  • Unlike most other antioxidants who are sourced from plants, the human body can produce the antioxidant glutathione in the liver, but it’s also present in green foods such as asparagus, avocado, okra and spinach.

  • N-acetyl-cysteine, a precursor of glutathione

  • Coenzyme Q10, also known as ubiquinone

As you can see, there are many different antioxidants available on the market. Whether they penetrate the skin effectively, depends on their solubility and the way they are formulated.

Anything else?

It’s noteworthy that although antioxidants in skin care may help to relief skin ageing, prevention of extrinsic ageing from occurring is still the best approach. So applying an antioxidant serum but no sunscreen is not your best bet.

It’s also important to note that the use of topical antioxidants does not replace a diet rich in fruit and vegetable consumption. As you can see from the list of antioxidants, practically all fresh vegetables and fruits are a source of antioxidants. Try and eat a wide array of colours or as they say ‘eat your rainbow’.

Amélie Seghers
Consultant dermatologist and author of the book “Eczema, how to ditch the itch

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