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How To Add Antioxidants To Your Skin Care Routine: The Best Ingredient For Every Need

Emily Rekstis
Author: Medical reviewer:
November 28, 2021
Emily Rekstis
Contributing writer
By Emily Rekstis
Contributing writer
Emily Rekstis is a freelance writer who has worked at Harper's Bazaar, Self, And UsWeekly. Her bylines appear in Healthline, Byrdie, Women's Health, MyDomaine, BuzzFeed, The Cut, Allure and many more.
Keira Barr, M.D.
Medical review by
Keira Barr, M.D.
Board-certified dermatologist
Keira Barr is a dual board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Resilient Health Institute.
November 28, 2021

You might already know that healthy skin needs antioxidants to function at peak level. What you might not know is why your skin needs antioxidants or the types of benefits antioxidants can offer to your regular skin care routine. That's why we're here! We've broken down exactly how antioxidants work, why they're a necessity to any skin care regimen, and how they combat all kinds of skin care concerns like dullness, dryness, and acne.

What do antioxidants do for skin?

Antioxidants are a must-have addition to your skin care routine. By targeting free radicals, antioxidants can provide all kinds of skin care benefits. First, let's dissect exactly what free radicals are and how they work: Free radicals are unstable molecules missing an electron. To gain stability, they search for electrons from healthy cells, which causes healthy cells to turn into radicals themselves, resulting in a never-ending vicious cycle.

Though our bodies naturally produce free radicals, other environmental factors like UV light, pollution, your diet, and cigarette smoke can generate free radicals. Sometimes we can even inadvertently add additional free radical stress to our skin by being overly aggressive with our products or routine. That's all to say: Free radicals can come from a lot of places. 

An overload of free radicals causes oxidative stress, which results in a breakdown of collagen, an obstruction to the skin's natural repair process and inflammation. It can also weaken the skin barrier and disrupt your skin microbiome. This all may result in aesthetic indicators like discoloration, sagging, flare-ups, acne, fine lines, and more. 

That's when antioxidants step in to lend a hand. "Antioxidants are compounds that prevent oxidation," board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D., says.

What does this mean in practice? "It's basically a substance that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals," board-certified dermatologist and founder of OptiSkin in NYC Orit Markowitz, M.D., explains. "Antioxidants are things that interact with free radicals, and they sort of decrease these free radicals on our skin, creating a healthier environment."

With antioxidants' help, skin can improve its texture, tone, and all-around health by targeting everything from fine lines to acne to dullness.

Which antioxidants are best for skin?

By now I'm sure you're running to the nearest skin care aisle looking for your newest skin care number. While all antioxidants can be beneficial in fighting free radicals when used properly, you can use specific actives to target your unique needs. And while we tend to spend most of our attention on our face, don't forget your body, hands, and hair need antioxidant protection too. Follow along for our guide. 

For dark spots & collagen production: Vitamin C

You've probably heard of this one, as it's got to be one of the most popular antioxidants on the market. Serums and moisturizers alike advertise their vitamin C formulas. Though vitamin C has lots of skin care benefits, its most beloved has to be its ability to brighten skin and minimize dark spots associated with photoaging, which is often caused by UV damage. It doesn't stop there, though. Vitamin C has also been shown to support collagen production1 and stabilize one's natural collagen. Overall, this antioxidant delivers a smoother, more radiant complexion.

Here are the best vitamin C serums out there, in case you're looking for an option.

For barrier support: Coenzyme Q10

Since antioxidant protection is a vital part of caring for your barrier, any non-irritating topical antioxidant will improve its health. However, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) just might be your best bet if you are dealing with epidermal issues. CoQ10 is a fat-soluble compound that's found in all your cells that has strong antioxidant properties: It protects against lipid peroxidation2, a process by which free radicals damage cell membranes leading to a weakened barrier function. Additionally, the coenzyme plays a role in skin cell energy production, meaning using the ingredient can help skin cells act young and healthy. 

For dryness: Vitamin E

Vitamin E is the most prevalent fat-soluble vitamin in the skin, making it an essential for healthy skin. It accelerates the skin's healing process, while also delivering moisturizing benefits, making it a great ingredient for all kinds of creams and lotions. As if that weren't enough, vitamin E also supports and stabilizes other antioxidants to help them perform their assigned tasks.

For acne: Niacinamide

Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide is a powerful soothing antioxidant that improves the skin's texture and tone. "Niacinamide is very mild and good for people with sensitive skin," Jaliman points out. This is due to its ability to strengthen the skin barrier. It also contains anti-inflammatory properties, which help to soothe breakouts and fight redness that's common in acne flare-ups. In fact, one study found that when applied topically, niacinamide can treat moderate acne as well as any topical antibiotic.

Markowitz notes that there are other factors that cause breakouts that niacinamide and other antioxidants cannot combat. "[Antioxidants] are not going to decrease bacteria or sebaceous glands or sebum production," she says. "But anything that creates a healthier environment and a better pH balance on the skin, even something as simple as micellar water, is going to decrease the amount of acne."

Here are the best niacinamide products around. 

For fine lines: Retinol

As a derivative of vitamin A, retinoids are considered antioxidants. It's one of the most effective anti-aging ingredients: Thanks to its small molecular structure, it's an incredibly effective antioxidant to penetrate deep into the skin to stimulate collagen production while also accelerating cell renewal and repair. "Retinol binds to retinoid receptors within skin cells," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. This "activates genes that upregulate collagen production." This effect was observed in a small human study, where retinol treatment stimulated collagen production3 in mature skin, helping decrease the appearance of wrinkling. This gives skin a smoother, more youthful finish that has your age clock going back in time.

For dullness: Retinol and Vitamin C

Both of these antioxidants can give skin a glowing finish. Jaliman says the retinol is the best, "as it decreases the cohesiveness of the outer cells and helps exfoliation." However, vitamin C's ability to prevent and treat photoaging has also made it a go-to brightening ingredient for those seeking a head-turning glowing complexion.  

For sensitivities: Polyphenols

These antioxidants are found in things such as green tea4 as well as certain fruits, vegetables, and other botanicals. Along with antioxidant properties that defend against oxidative stress, polyphenols also contain anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce signs of sensitive skin, like redness or irritation. There's also resveratrol, which is a type of polyphenol and another great antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antibacterial benefits. This molecule can be found in the skins of fruits like grapes and berries. There are thousands of polyphenols, but they also contain a handful of similar antioxidant behavior.

How to use antioxidants.

There are a variety of ways to layer antioxidants into your routine:

  • Diet: Always make sure to eat an antioxidant-rich diet, as that can help your body internally. Look for colorful fruits and greens. Blueberries and citrus fruits, in particular, are derm favorites. You can also look for beauty supplements to support your intake.
  • Serums: Serums are highly concentrated formulas that are meant to be applied directly onto clean skin to supply your cells with actives. If you want a high-powered facial treatment, this will be your best bet. Check out the best antioxidant serums here.
  • Face creams and lotions: While facial moisturizers are more about hydration than treatment, they can offer a dose of antioxidant protection. However, you should note that they are one of the last steps of your routine—and typically contain occlusive ingredients to sit atop the skin—so they won't penetrate as deeply.
  • Face oils: Many face oils come with the antioxidants above naturally. Check out mbg's favorite facial oils here.
  • Body care: Don't forget that your full body needs antioxidant protection. We always recommend finding body lotions, oils, and hand creams that have antioxidants in them to improve overall skin quality.

The takeaway. 

Antioxidants are a must-have in your skin care routine. "The good news is that many products are now naturally incorporating antioxidants," Markowitz says. Whether you're minimizing the appearance of aging, calming down irritation, or clearing acne breakouts, there's an antioxidant for everyone.

Emily Rekstis author page.
Emily Rekstis
Contributing writer

Emily Rekstis is a freelance writer, editor and content creator. After serving as the beauty assistant at Harper's Bazaar and Self magazine, she went on to cover celebrity beauty and fashion as UsWeekly's Style Editor. Consistently curious and always willing to learn, she indulges in her variety of interests writing about everything from beauty trends to health habits to design tips for publications like Healthline, Byrdie, Women's Health, MyDomaine, BuzzFeed, The Cut, Allure and many more.