Antioxidants in Skincare: What Do They Do?

Antioxidants in Skincare: What Do They Do?

Antioxidants in Skincare: What Do They Do?

You can find antioxidants in all sorts of products – from food and supplements, to creams and lipstick, and even shampoo. Skincare expert Paula Begoun almost immediately downgrades a product on Beautypedia if it doesn’t contain antioxidants. What are antioxidants doing in your skincare products, how do they work, and what should you look for?

Free Radicals and Skin Damage

One of the key ways in which skin (and your body) ages is through free radical damage, also known as oxidative stress. Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron, which make them highly reactive. To become more stable, they have to acquire another electron by taking one from another molecule (aka acting as an oxidant). That molecule now has an unpaired electron, which makes it highly unstable, and it wants an extra electron…see where it’s going? We have a chain reaction. In the process of electron transfer, chemical bonds are broken and new ones form, causing irreversible changes in the molecules’ structure and function.

Antioxidants in Skincare: What Do They Do?

Free radicals are essential in many biological processes, but if too many are formed in the wrong place, they’ll react with whatever’s around – free radicals can attack DNA, proteins and lipids. The electron-stealing chain reactions permanently change the structures of your molecules, leading to the features you’d think of in damaged skin: wrinkles, fine lines, fragile skin, mottled pigmentation and even skin cancers. Free radicals can also trigger inflammation and other harmful pathways in the skin, such as increased production of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) which break down collagen in your skin.

Free radicals in living organisms usually contain oxygen, so they’re often called “reactive oxygen species” (ROS for short). The most common free radicals in the body are superoxide O2-• and hydroxyl OH.

What Causes Free Radicals?

Free radicals are formed during normal biological processes such as respiration. Environmental factors like UV exposure, pollution and cigarette smoke also cause more free radicals in your body, and since your skin is the main interface between you and the outside world, that’s where free radicals form in the greatest amounts.

As I’ve mentioned many times, sun exposure should be one of your biggest skincare concerns, and free radicals are a big part of the reason. Free radicals form in your skin within 15 minutes of exposure to UV, and continues for up to an hour afterwards. Sun damage from UVA exposure is largely from free radical damage, and since UVA penetrates into the dermis, free radical damage can occur quite deeply in the skin. UVB can also produce free radicals too.

How Do Antioxidants Prevent Free Radical Damage?

An antioxidant is any molecule that can neutralise free radicals. They’re usually molecules that are reasonably stable with an unpaired electron, so once the free radical takes their electron, the chain reaction stops. Essentially, they’re like sacrificial shields that intercept the free radicals before they have a chance to react with important biological molecules.

Your body naturally contains antioxidants that soak up free radical damage, including enzymes like superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase. There are also smaller non-enzymatic antioxidants like vitamins C and E, coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinol) and glutathione. However, these natural mechanisms can become overwhelmed if too many free radicals are present, which is where the idea of topping up your antioxidant stores with antioxidant-containing products come in.

There’s a lot of talk of dietary antioxidants and antioxidant “superfoods” in the media, but it’s still debatable whether taking antioxidant supplements actually helps reduce oxidative stress – clinical studies are divided, likely because antioxidants aren’t getting to the right place or are destroyed during digestion, or may even be reducing oxidative damage in unwanted cells when large supplements are taken. (Luckily, a lot of antioxidant-rich foods are healthy for other reasons, and many of them are cheap, so they’re often worth eating anyway!)

The advantages of applying antioxidant products to your skin are a bit more straightforward, according to the research so far. Since your skin is exposed to the elements (in particular, UV), it’s a part of your body that experiences a lot of extra free radical damage, and can benefit the most from extra antioxidants.

Which Antioxidants Actually Work in Skincare?

Applying more of the antioxidants naturally present in your skin can boost your skin’s ability to neutralise free radicals. The ones you’ll find in skincare products, that have clinical studies to show that they work when applied to skin, include:

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Oils for Oil Cleansing – Review



Since I posted the Beginner’s Guide to Oil Cleansing, a few people have asked me which oils I’ve tried for oil cleansing and what I thought of them, so here’s a quick rundown of my experience. A few things to note:

  • Your mileage may vary. Skincare is individual, what works for me may not work for you.
  • Oils are natural extracts without a definitive, set composition – one brand will not be the same as another, and even different batches from the same brand can differ. The more refined an oil, the more consistent it’ll be, but the less antioxidants/vitamins/non-triglyceride stuff it’ll contain.
  • Oils go off! Especially oils with a high linoleic acid, which unfortunately is also the type of oil that works best for my skin. If your oil smells different, it might be time to chuck it out.
  • Oils sold for cooking and oils sold for skincare may have different compositions – cooking oils are sometimes enriched in oleic acid compared to their skincare counterparts, and often are more processed and will contain less antioxidants/vitamins/non-triglyceride stuff.

With that out of the way, here are all the oils I’ve tried so far:

Olive oil

Product used: Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($5.99 for 375 mL = $0.016 per mL)

Olive oil is high in oleic acid, which gives it a thick, rich feel and has a higher chance of comedogenicity (causing pimples). There are mixed reports about whether olive oil is helpful or hurtful in skincare, which I would bet is partly because of the crazy amount of contaminated olive oil out there (from that last article, apparently Italy sells 3 times as much olive oil as it produces, and only 4% of exported Italian olive oil is pure).

This was the first oil I tried for oil cleansing. Cobram Estate seems to be legit, so I wasn’t too worried about the contamination issue. I did find it thicker and stickier than I liked though, so it tended to hang around on my shower tiles, plus it smelled strongly of olive oil which made me hungry.

Verdict: Might be good for dry skin, but do your research and beware of widespread contamination.

Sunflower oil

Product used: Coop Sunflower Oil (Swiss supermarket brand) – similar to Coles Sunflower Oil ($2.70 for 750 mL = $0.0036 per mL)

I ran out of make-up remover in Switzerland and my skin was feeling dry, so I grabbed the oil from the kitchen and tried cleansing with it. My skin ended up looking better than ever! I put it down to the high linoleic acid content. It’s light, less likely to clog pores and might help reduce acne, though I can’t pretend I have anything but unreliable anecdotal evidence on that front. It was the oil that really got me back into oil cleansing, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it… after I’ve tried all the other oils! It was mildly scented.

Verdict: Fantastic basic oil, suitable for most skin. No complaints! Be aware that sunflower oil for cooking may be “high oleic”, which will work differently.

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My Skincare Regimen (in excessive detail)

A few people have asked me about my regular skincare routine, which I described briefly in my interview with Beautiful With Brains – here it is in more detail. I generally use the same steps, but I often substitute in different products. It gets pretty complex, but I hope it makes sense! I’ve included a summary chart at the bottom, …

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Best Australian brands to check out

I’ve been travelling around Europe a bit lately, and before heading to each country I’ve been looking up lists of beauty brands and products to look out for. To return the favour for all of those awesome recs, I’ve decided to compile a list of my favourite Aussie buys for skincare, make-up and nails… Skincare  In the realm of skincare, …

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My winter skincare regimen

Since winter’s started I’ve found that my usual skincare hasn’t quite been up to scratch, so I’ve been adding some extras in to combat dryness and irritation, especially on my face and cuticles. There’s a running theme of glycerin in theses products – my skin just loves glycerin-based moisturisers! Here’s what I’ve tried recently, on my face and body. FACE …

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La Mav Organic skincare review

La Mav is an Australian, certified organic, natural-based skincare range. They’re also cruelty free and eco-friendly, and most importantly, use ingredients with proven results, which is a rarity in the “natural” market, and something I’m very excited about! Exhibit A: an ingredients list on their website, which specifically states the mechanism of action of each ingredient, in simple terms. Win! …

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