Antioxidants | What They Are + Why Your Skin Needs Them!

pomegranate and bowl of seeds on a wood counter

What are antioxidants?

The Overview: Our bodies have a natural reservoir of antioxidants that protect and repair skin. But as skin is damaged by things in our environment like sun and pollution, our antioxidant supply is quickly depleted. Without antioxidant protection, skin cells are damaged causing changes in the health and look of your skin.

So how does that work exactly?  When skin is exposed to the sun's rays or pollution, some atoms are damaged. These damaged atoms are called free radicals. They are unstable (often called reactive) because they have an uneven number of electrons.

To become stable, free radicals steal an electron from another healthy atom. Over time this causes permanent damage to skin. Premature signs of aging like wrinkles, fine lines, age spots, and skin cancer can develop. Antioxidants prevent this damage by donating an electron to the free radicals that would otherwise cause skin damage.

I racked my brains trying to find a good analogy. Here goes.

Say you're like me and your sophomore year in high school you decide to trim your bangs the night before your class picture. (Not smart, I know!) So you proceed to trim them while they're wet to exactly the right length - forgetting that you have curly hair which looks much shorter when it's dry. So your bangs dry and you're horrified because they're really, REALLY short. You become unstable (crying) and reactive (telling yourself how exceedingly stupid you are) like a free radical.

You make an emergency call to your stylist and ask for hair extensions STAT. She squeezes you in and saves you from horrible humiliation and indignation. (Your stylist / antioxidant donates hair extensions / an electron - ok you pay her, but for the purposes of this analogy, she donates them - and saves your butt.) You've become stable. Now you can look in the mirror without crying.

Where do I get antioxidants?

Antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, like peas and beans. There are thousands of them. They can be found in skin care products too, most notably as vitamin C. But it is important to remember that not every antioxidant is effective on all areas of the body. 

Free Radical Diagram

The wider the VARIETY of antioxidants you eat and apply to your skin, the better.

1. Antioxidants in Food

Add antioxidants to your diet by eating colorful fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C and flavonoids (powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits) are found in citrus fruits like lemons and oranges. Vitamin E comes from whole grains and nuts. Vitamin A is found in liver, cod liver oil, and fatty fish. Beta carotene is in carrots and other orange vegetables. Green tea is rich in polyphenols (antioxidants that may prevent degenerative diseases like cancer and heart disease).

2. Antioxidants in Skin Care Products

"The body delivers only a certain percentage of vitamins to your skin, no matter how much you ingest," says Dr. Mary Lupo, Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine. "Plus, there's no way to send them straight to your crow's feet or brown spots."

  • The solution is to apply vitamins to skin in a cream or serum to get the best result.
  • To work well, antioxidant skin care formulations must be pure, stable and have the right pH to penetrate skin.
pretty woman with white headband holding a lemon slice up to her eye

Research has shown that sunscreen alone does not provide enough protection from environmental damage. Most people don't apply enough sunscreen, so they may be getting only half the protection shown on the bottle. A study in 2006, by Haywood, et al found that sunscreens only block 55% of the free radicals caused by sun exposure. For skin to be adequately protected from sun and pollution, a topical antioxidant should be used together with daily sunscreen. SkinCeuticals offers 8 antioxidant products clinically proven to provide the best protection from this type of damage.

The SkinCeuticals #ad scientists are the pioneers of cosmeceutical skin care products with scientifically proven results. Their formulations use high concentrations of pure, active ingredients. Their research and development teams have had major breakthroughs in stabilizing active ingredients.

One example is vitamin C in skin care products. SkinCeuticals formulates its antioxidant serums #ad exclusively with pure L-ascorbic acid, the natural form of active vitamin C. Science has proven that vitamin C derivatives, which are more stable and easier to formulate, don't have the same proven benefit in skin. L-ascorbic acid does frequently darken over time, but in the SkinCeuticals products, it remains effective.

3. What About Antioxidant Supplements?

I started reading an article in Scientific American, Antioxidant Supplements: Too Much of a Kinda Good Thing, to find the answer. The article was written in 2015 and says the thinking on antioxidant supplements has changed.

Essentially, scientists are starting to think that it is important for the human body to find a balance - and that high doses of antioxidant supplements may upset that balance.

Dr. Cleva Villanueva and Dr. Robert Kross published an article, “Antioxidant-Induced Stress” in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in 2012. Their research hypothesizes that free radicals are no longer the bad guys AND antioxidants aren't the good guys like we've always been told. Rather the 2 maintain a delicate balance. The doctors present a hypothesis that "antioxidant-induced stress results when antioxidants overwhelm the body’s free radicals."

I'll try my best to summarize. The theory goes like this:

After donating an electron, antioxidants themselves become reactive. (So your stylist, after donating hair extensions, becomes unstable - maybe she really needed money to pay her rent. But instead she used that money to buy extensions for you.)

When there are a bunch of different kinds of antioxidants, like we get from the food in our diet, they create a "cascading buffer" for one another. They each in turn donate electrons to your free radicals. (So your hairstylist has a lot of stylist friends that felt really bad for you after you cut your hair. Your stylist and all her friends each donate 1 extension to fix your doo.)

As an antioxidant gives an electron to a free radical, the antioxidant itself becomes a free radical. Then another antioxidant donates an electron to the now reactive antioxidant / free radical. It creates kind of a chain reaction, but each time an electron is donated, the new free radical formed is less reactive than the last. So the damage slowly decreases. (Because each stylist donated 1 extension, your stylist was able to help you and still pay her rent.)

BUT say you decide to take a bunch of vitamin C because you've heard how important antioxidants are. There's only vitamin C - not the variety you'd get when you get antioxidants in your food. The authors of the study say this sets you up for "antioxidant stress."

Closeup of hands holding pills, wearing medical uniform, stethoscope | What are antioxidants? | Masterpiece Skin Restoration

Antioxidant stress happens when you have lots of the same antioxidants (in this example, vitamin C) that donate electrons to all your free radicals. It sounds ok, right? But the authors of the study argue that it's not.  All those free radicals signal your body to make it's own very beneficial antioxidants. When the free radicals are neutralized by the vitamin C, your body never makes the beneficial antioxidants. You and your body miss out. It's antioxidant stress.

And there's another theory on antioxidants and aging.  It's from Professor Nick Lane, Evolutionary Biochemist at University College London. He says the free radical theory of aging has been "comprehensively disproved." That it's not true. And he agrees that taking large antioxidant supplements doesn't work. He explains that there have been a lot of studies and that the data show quite convincingly that "if anything you're more likely to die sooner if you take large antioxidant supplements."

Why? What makes Dr. Lane think that antioxidants don't work?  In short, Dr. Lane thinks antioxidants interfere with cell signaling. He says free radicals act like a "smoke signal" within a cell. They tell the cell that something is going wrong. Each cell has its own protective "smoke detector." The smoke detector alerts the cell that it's time to "batten down the hatches" (protect the cell by changing the expression of genes) allowing it to live longer. Antioxidants disable your cell's smoke detectors - and that's not good.

Is all this proven?  Nope.

Could it be like all those times we were told we should be eating a low fat, high carb diet?  Maybe.

Science advances and we learn more every day. But that's the key. We're still learning.

Should you take antioxidant supplements?  Read the Scientific American and Nautilus | Aging articles and make the best choice for you. (And be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any dietary supplement.)

What's the takeaway?

Obviously, more research needs to be done. Theories are all over the place.

Dr. Lane says speeding cell turnover is the first thing you need. He recommends exercise and a good diet - but not for the reasons you think. His theory is that "fruit and vegetables may be good for us in part because they contain toxins that stimulate cell turnover."

Most dermatologists do agree that for your skin to be its healthiest, you need to eat antioxidant rich foods AND apply antioxidant skin care products.

I like the SkinCeuticals Skin Care Line. They are the pioneers of antioxidants in skin care products and studies prove their products work. So you know your hard earned money is well spent! Their C E Ferulic has won THIRTY-FIVE! beauty awards and really put the company on the map.

Head shot, Amy Takken, RN & Founder, Masterpiece Skin Restoration

Amy Takken, RN

Amy Takken is a registered nurse with 20+ years of experience helping people improve their health. Her in-depth skincare articles have been featured on Nazarian Plastic Surgery and The Palm Beach Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery. She's also been quoted on

Amy loves research and constantly watches for new products and treatments to help you improve your skin’s health – because healthy skin is beautiful! To reach Amy, visit our contact page.

Learn more in these posts:

5 Advantages of Cosmeceutical Skincare Products

Active Skincare Ingredients | They're How You Know Your Skincare Works!

Masterpiece Skin Restoration is your online resource for all things medical aesthetics, skincare, beauty, and wellness. We keep you up to date on leading edge technology and the services available to help you restore your natural beauty.

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Haywood, R., et al, J Invest Dermatol 2006;121:862-868


The Information provided on our website is not medical advice and should not be viewed as such. By law, only a medical doctor can diagnose or give medical advice. As a registered nurse, my goal is to educate, so I provide information on skin care, skin care products, and skin care treatments. If you have any condition that concerns you, please see a medical doctor. While most skin conditions are benign, some - like melanoma - can be deadly. If there is any doubt, please, please consult your physician. Thank you!

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