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.
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: