Favorite Skincare Ingredient – 2. Antioxidants

The second blog post of this new ingredient based series is dedicated to antioxidants. They have been very popular as active ingredients for some time now, mainly vitamin C being THE one antioxidant that seemed to have started this trend of incorporating certain vitamins and other antioxidants into modern skincare products, although vitamin E (tocopherol) has been around for what seems forever, especially for treating dry, mature skin and scarring. It was vitamin C though that hit the skincare markets mostly in the form of serums and treatments that help brighten and repair as well as prevent the effects of photo aging of the skin (photo aging basically means “damage to skin cells caused by the sun’s UV rays that results in premature aging of the skin”, i.e. brown spots or hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, and can ultimately lead to serious photo damage, like Basal Cell Carcinomas which are the most common kind of skin cancers and are typically found on sun-exposed areas, etc.)*1

Note: I will go into details about the different kinds of products (like cleanser, exfoliant, serum, etc.) in a different post, where I am going to explain, why it makes more sense to invest money in serums and/or treatments, rather than spending it on moisturizers or cleansers for example. Therefore this series about ingredients will recommend mainly either serums or other forms of liquids or creams that I would consider “treatments“. Active ingredients, potency and formulations being the reason for this. More Details later.

Like with retinol (a form of vitamin A and therefore also an antioxidant), they are clinically proven to work, meaning antioxidants clearly benefit the skin and overall health of the body. My guest blogger Scott (currently working on his Bachelor’s in Nutrition, a devoted science student and planning to become a physician’s assistant), is going to explain the chemical reactions in the body and how antioxidants benefit the skin in Part 3. He will also talk about free radicals and their negative effects on skin cells and what important part antioxidants play to counteract those effects.

Fresh strawberries from the market in Frankfurt, Germany, rich in vitamin C © skinandcolors.com

Fresh strawberries from the market in Frankfurt, Germany, rich in vitamin C © skinandcolors.com

Part 1: So what are antioxidants exactly?

Antioxidants are not only the vitamins A, C, and E. They are generally speaking “substances that neutralize free radicals”, thereby slowing down the aging process and have been used extensively in both the food and skincare/beauty industry as preservatives to help prevent spoilage of the food and “spoilage”, or oxidation of skincare products.

Example: An easy to understand example of the oxidation process would be a sliced apple that will turn brown after being exposed to air. If you drizzle lemon juice on the apple halves, it will prevent them from turning brown, thus slowing down the process of oxidation. Lemon juice of course contains a high amount of vitamin C (L-Ascorbic Acid) but you wouldn’t want to put this on your skin. It is way too strong in this form and would cause more damage than help you.

Part 2: Examples of antioxidants that are used in skincare:

Most commonly used antioxidant ingredients in skincare include: Vitamins A, C, E, superoxide dismutase (SOD), coenzyme Q10 (also known as ubiquinol), idebenone, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and flavonoids and polyphenols found in plant extracts, especially green tea and coffee cherries*2.

Note: White tea is the least processed form of tea and thus contains the highest amounts of antioxidants. It’s not as easy to find as green tea in local stores, that’s why I was glad when I discovered Fusion Green & White from Stash which you can easily find at your local Walmart. I try to drink 3-4 cups of tea daily and enjoy the mild flavor.

So look out for these things on the ingredients list (and incorporate them in your diet as well of course). The body contains and keeps producing antioxidants as well, mainly in the epidermis where it is exposed to much of the sun light. But it is important to have a reservoir because the “fights” these antioxidants are involved in, are ongoing. More about that in the next part.

Loaded with antioxidants - Green Tea © skinandcolors.com

Loaded with antioxidants – Green Tea © skinandcolors.com

Part 3: How antioxidants work and why they are called antioxidants:

To understand the generous nature of the antioxidant, we need to define its rapacious counterpart: the free radical, an atom with an unpaired electron.

Electrons prefer to come in pairs, when they have lost a single electron they become unstable and desperately seek out a new one to complete its pair and restore its balance.

In doing so, the free radical will rip off single electrons from anywhere it can, making those victim atoms unstable, compromising the entire magnificent molecular edifice. When an atom has been violated in this manner and has lost an electron, it is said to have been “oxidized”.

Who will stop this terrorizer? The anti-oxidant.


General form of an antioxidant, also known as phenol

It pacifies the free radical, by donating one of its electrons to it. The radical is happy again, and the antioxidant can cope with one less electron and remain stable, because of two special features.

I’ll only mention one of them, because you’ve certainly heard part of its name: a hydroxy group (OH). The same “hydroxy” we hear about in AHA’s (Alphahydroxy Acids), etc. In fact, it’s the hydro- that saves the day. The oxygen in the OH/hydroxy group, gives up its lovely H/hydrogen, for the greater good.

Vitamin E is one of these peacekeeping antioxidants we see in many anti-aging products. As you may know, vitamin E is one of those vitamins we have to take care not to consume too much of in diet or supplement form.

This is because it’s fat soluble and can dissolve into our cells (which are contained inside a fatty/lipid wall) and remain there and build up over time. But while the antioxidant E is there, it shields the cell from ravenous free radicals in their frantic search for that elusive electron to complete them.

Thus, stopping premature cell death and keeping us looking young and full of happy, balanced atoms.

Part 4: Table of the most commonly used antioxidants in skincare, featuring their description and effects*(this is only for the genuinely interested mind, you can skip to the product recommendations if you wish):

Name Description Effects
Superoxide Dismutase (SOD) Exists naturally in skin. If applied topically, can help deactivate superoxide radical that is formed when skin is exposed to UV light.
Vitamin E One of the most powerful antioxidants available, considered the first line of defense; also pre-exists in the body. It protects the cell membrane against lipid oxidation; studies have shown that even small vitamin E deficiency can lead to cellular damage.
Vitamin C Natural antioxidant, also pre-exists in the body but weaker than vitamin E. It complements vitamin E in the fight against free radical damage of the cellular membrane by allowing vitamin E to free itself from damage caused by free radicals and continue with its antioxidant activity.Needs to be encapsulated or incorporated in a stable form. Excellent for lightening brown spots.
Vitamin A Part of the dream team: Note the synergistic antioxidant reaction of vitamins A, C, and E. Vitamin E is at the forefront, followed by vitamin C being the one to neutralize damage to vitamin E caused by free radicals, and afterwardsprovitamin A helps deactivate damage even further so all other elements are free to work their antioxidant powers.Retinol is a form of vitamin A and an excellent anti-aging ingredient.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid (DHLA) Powerful; active against a broad spectrum of free radicals in both water and fat surroundings. Often used in skincare products to reduce inflammation, improve cellular energy production, and protects against a wide range of free radicals.
Coenzyme Q10 (Ubiquinol) Powerful antioxidant naturally found in cells. When applied topically its large molecular size does not allow for proper penetration through the cellular membrane.So spend your money wisely when it comes to products.
Idebenone Better alternative to Q10: Mimics the behavior of Q10 but has smaller molecular size. Autoregenerative, protects skin from direct free radical attack, also preventing formation of secondary chemicals that result from free radical damage; due to its small molecular size it is capable of penetrating the cellular membrane thus neutralizing free radicals inside the cell.
Butylated Hydroxy-toluene (BHT) Commonly used as preservative in both food and beauty industry to prevent product rancidity.Check the ingredients list of your favorite cereal brands. Most brands use it! Increases vitamin stability, prevents rancidity and color change due to its antioxidant power.
Green tea and white tea! Considered to be one of the most active antioxidants. Some sources claim it may be up to 25x as potent as vitamin E. Think of all the Asians and the effect their traditional diets and consumption of green tea has on their generally very good health.  *Raising my cup of Fusion Green & White tea. There is not enough clarification on the antioxidant power of green tea being applied topically vs. internally. I’d say opt for both! Green tea contains a variety of antioxidants, called catechins, the most important being epigallocatechin-3-gallate.When topically applied, green tea helps with inflammation. Great ingredient for all skin types, but especially great for sensitive skins and also very helpful when added to retinol serums, glycolic creams and sun block.
Carotenes Most commonly known as beta-carotenes, long-lasting natural source of antioxidants. When formulated with vitamin E (tocopherol and alpha-tocopherol), they seem to have a synergistic effect, making their antioxidant activity greater than when being used individually.
Polyphenols Are a chain of phenol molecules, present in a large number of plant compounds. Most commonly used inskincare: phenolic acids (coffee cherries), bioflavonoids, catechinsorflavonols, flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, anthocyanidins,andisoflavones.Natural sources include: green and white tea. (Also: grapeseed extracts, red wine, pomegranates, coffee cherries, apples, cacao, berries, and soy.)

*Source: Culp, Judith et al. (2013): Milady Standard Esthetics Advanced, Second Edition. Clifton Park, NY. P. 314-315.

Part 5: Product Recommendations:

  • “C E Ferulic” Antioxidant Serum by SkinCeuticals, $162. It’s expensive, but it’s been one of the first potent antioxidant serums to hit the market and it is still one of the best out there. This serum contains an excellent blend of antioxidants that work together beautifully.
  • “Juno Body Transformative Lipid Serum” by Sunday Riley, $105. Good for dry and sensitive skins. Personally, I like that in this one they didn’t add any potential irritants. It’s expensive, yes, but a lot of people find they see overnight results with Sunday Riley’s product range. And as mentioned before, a proper serum with active ingredients in good packaging is worth investing money in. Save on cleanser and moisturizer, splurge on a good serum. Another one to try would be:
  • “Juno Hydroactive Cellular Face Oil” by Sunday Riley, $90. It’s not quite as expensive as the above mentioned and contains a wonderful blend of antioxidants in an oil base. Suitable for all, but especially for dry skins and even pregnant women.
  • “Hydra-Pure Vitamin C Brightening Serum” by Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare, $95. As the name implies, for the ones with hyperpigmentation (brown spots and discolorations) issues.
  • “Resist Ultra-Light Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum” by Paula’s Choice, $30. It’s reasonably priced and they don’t use any irritating ingredients. I use the one with added retinol.
  • “Firming DMAE Serum With Alpha-Lipoic and C-Ester” by derma e, $22.50. As you can see, I often do rely on Paula Begoun’s/Beautypedia’s reviews but not 100%. I like this serum, although I don’t believe in DMAE either. But it’s reasonably priced, leaves combination to oily skin wonderfully hydrated without any greasiness and the packaging is opaque. I feel like it helps keep my skin matte but hydrated throughout the day. It also contains a stabilized form of vitamin C.

So that was it about antioxidants. As usual keep in mind to check the ingredients list and also make sure that the packaging allows only minimal exposure to air and light, since antioxidants are very sensitive and lose their power easily. Should you experience that your vitamin C serum has turned brown, or even worse, has started to smell, chances are it turned bad. You won’t get any benefits from this one. Toss it.

Do let me know about your favorite serums that contain antioxidants. If you’re interested in antioxidants and diet, let me know. I have a wonderful future Nutritionist and PA at hand, Scott, who loves to contribute.


– Mirjam


*Basal Cell Carcinomas are the most common and least severe type of skin cancers. Of course frequent exposure to sunlight and tanning beds CAN also lead to other types of skin cancers that are more serious. Read more about it here: Culp, Judith et al. (2013): Milady Standard Esthetics Advanced, Second Edition. Clifton Park, NY. P. 241-249.

*Taken from: Culp, Judith et al. (2013): Milady Standard Esthetics Advanced, Second Edition. Clifton Park, NY. P. 313-315.

* Table created by me. Material taken from: Culp, Judith et al. (2013): Milady Standard Esthetics Advanced, Second Edition. Clifton Park, NY. P. 314-315.

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