Antioxidants: how they can help your skin

Antioxidants in our food have long been touted as an anti-ageing miracle so it’s hardly surprising that they’re in creams and serums. But do they really have the same benefits when they’re in a tube? Heather Stephen reports.

Antioxidants are in nearly every anti-ageing product because of their value in slowing the damage caused by what are known as free radicals. The antioxidants are vital for protecting cells and boosting collagen production.  Here’s how they do it.

Molecules in skin cells are damaged by exposure to sun damage, pollution, smoking, alcohol and other lifestyle factors. That causes the atoms in the cells to lose an electron – making them unstable or what’s known as a ‘free radical’. These cause havoc to our cells by trying to steal back electrons from neighbouring molecules – which damages the cell. This sparks a cascade of cellular destruction and the result is the wrinkling, dullness and sagging we associate with ageing.

Antioxidants have been shown to slow this process by lending their electrons to free radicals – making them stable again, and this had proven benefits for our skin.

(Picture: The anti-oxidant donates an electron to the free radical)

‘Antioxidants help to neutralise excess oxidation reactions triggered by free radicals,’ explains medical nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer. ‘Some oxidation reactions are beneficial, such as those used by white blood cells to fight infections but others are associated with premature ageing, where proteins are oxidised causing collagen in the skin to lose elasticity leading to wrinkles.

‘Antioxidants help to neutralise the free radical damage that triggers age spots, loss of skin elasticity, wrinkles and thinning hair,’ she says. ‘They provide a defence against the inflammation triggered by exposure to ultraviolet and researchers have found that antioxidants can reduce skin roughness, improve skin tone, clarity and radiance while reducing fine wrinkles and overall aged appearance.’


Know your A, B,C’s and E’s

This all sounds great, but how do we know what to look out for when buying our wrinkle busters? The common antioxidants found in anti-ageing products are vitamins A, B, C, E and resveratrol. And they have a whole bunch of benefits beyond scavenging free radicals.

Vitamins C, B3 and E are the most effective antioxidants in products as their small molecular weight makes it easier for them to penetrate the skin.

But all antioxidants found in anti-ageing creams have proven value. For example, on top of their free radical busting properties, there is good evidence that vitamins C and E – particularly used together with ferulic acid, reduce sunburn, which can be a factor in the development of skin cancer.  (This does not, however, mean you can throw away your sunscreen – they are just one factor that help protect and repair your skin.)

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Vitamin A – a well-established effective treatment for acne and psoriasis – and vitamin C have been shown to boost collagen production.

B3 (niacinamide) regenerates skin cells and improves elasticity and resveratrol – the antioxidant found in red wine – can help protect against UV radiation and skin cancer.

And studies have shown antioxidants are particularly helpful in countering some of the damage caused by smoking and drinking alcohol.

You might ask whether it might be better to get your antioxidants from a supplement but the science suggests this might not necessarily be the best option.


Better out than in? 

Scientists have found that applying vitamin C on the skin could be better than taking a supplement as a large proportion is destroyed in the gut.  And a review of several studies by Oregon State University found oral vitamin E supplements offered no UV protection whereas a topical application of vitamin E decreased sunburn, DNA damage and skin pigmentation.

 ‘As we get older our natural antioxidant levels are reduced,’ says consultant dermatologist Justine Hextall.

‘Antioxidants used in skin care products have the potential to help your skin by protecting against free radical damage. Used in sunscreens they can protect against longer wave lengths such as infrared A that are not blocked by traditional sun creams. And we now know these longer wavelengths damage collagen and elastin and cause age spots which are recognised signs of sun ageing.’


A question of stability and Storage

So, how does all the science translate to creams and serums? Well, there can be challenges replicating these results in a product.

‘Antioxidants are often added to preserve a product and stop it going off as they stop free radicals from damaging oils and fats,’ explains Steve Bell, technical director of Swan Laboratories, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire.

‘But they traditionally break down very quickly when exposed to light and don’t last very long after the jar is opened.’

Dr Hextall says these products have to be stored correctly to retain their effects. ‘Many of these active ingredients are unstable, particularly when exposed to light so I recommend storing these serums and creams in dark bottles and keeping them out of direct sunlight.’


An airtight, light-proof, pump action dispenser is also ideal.

And, while she says a vitamin C serum can protect against free radical damage and brightens skin, it may make skin slightly irritated when used straight from the vial so Dr Hextall uses a drop in moisturiser for a gentler concentration.

As manufacturers include varying amounts of antioxidants it can be tricky to know whether you are getting a product which has enough of the good stuff. Steve Bell suggests having a good look at the label.

If antioxidants are up near the top of the list of ingredients the product will contain more. And if you want a type of vitamin E that works wonders for your skin look out for alpha-tocopherol rather than alpha-tocopherol acetate which doesn’t penetrate as well.

So, although antioxidants in skin care products have their challenges the evidence is sound that, used correctly, they could make you look younger, spare your skin from the damaging effects of the sun and could even protect you from cancer. No surprise they are such a staple part of our skin care armoury.

  • Dr Sarah Brewer is the author of over 60 popular health books, including Eat Well, Stay Well (Connections) and has a Nutritional Medicine blog at