In the ever-advancing world of skin care, there is one ingredient category whose benefits will never fall out of favor: antioxidants. There's a reason doctors, derms, and registered dietitians all tell you to use them (be it topically or via supplementation). Research continues to prove how powerful these little workhorses are for your skin1: they help manage free radical damage, fade fine lines and dark spots, and even support collagen and elastin.* Basically, antioxidants can do it all. And each type of antioxidant posits specific and unique benefits—here, we're breaking them all down:
"Vitamin C is one of the few active ingredients that can benefit all skin types," Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University Medical Center, previously told mindbodygreen. This antioxidant has been proven to have a host of skin benefits: Things like fading hyperpigmentation2, brightening, supporting collagen production3, and even taming rosacea (thanks to its anti-inflammatory2 properties).*
Well, research has found that when skin is excessively exposed to external aggressors (unprotected UV exposure and pollution, for example), its natural reserves of vitamin C become depleted4. It makes sense, then, that replenishing vitamin C levels in the skin can lead to a seemingly endless list of protective and restorative benefits. It's important to find a stable, well-formulated topical serum, as the vitamin turns ineffective easily. You should also consider vitamin C supplementation, which has been shown to promote collagen production in the skin4.*
This powerful antioxidant belongs to the carotenoid family. Quick refresher: Carotenoids are a subgroup of antioxidants (others include flavonoids and polyphenols), and these substances are responsible for the bright red and orange hues of certain foods (like carrots). Among them, another antioxidant called beta-carotene typically takes all the glory—even though research has found that astaxanthin is a whopping five times more potent. Benefits of this topical include preventing skin5 damage caused by sun exposure, in turn making it a healthy-aging powerhouse. When taken as a supplement, it protects the skin's collagen layer, supports UV protection6, helps reduce fine lines and age spots, and supports skin hydration.*
Oil-soluble antioxidant vitamin E works on an even deeper level in the skin than vitamin C—although these two topicals become even more potent when used in tandem. In addition to helping skin manage the affects of photodamage, vitamin E is known to promote cellular restoration, thereby strengthening the skin barrier when used topically or ingested as a supplement7.*
The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory that has long been used internally and externally. The ingredient is thought to manage inflammation at the cellular level by blocking a particular molecule that can work its way into your cells and turn on genes that lead to inflammation.* Essentially: It circumvents the inflammation process before it starts, rather than trying to manage it later.*
Reservatrol is a naturally occurring polyphenol with antioxidant properties, and these micronutrients are also responsible for giving certain foods—such as grapes, raspberries and red wine—their deep-colored hues. Research has found that when used topically, this polyphenol has anti-aging benefits, namely preserving collagen levels and taming skin inflammation. Additionally, reservatrol has been shown to have a lightening8 and brightening effect on skin tone.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
You may not have heard of this antioxidant (yet), but its research-backed ability to preserve collagen levels1 in the skin are well documented. The technical term for this antioxidant is ubiquinone, and it's naturally present in all human cells wherein it scavenges free radicals, protects our mitochondria, and prevents DNA from oxidative stress. CoQ10 is also naturally present in the skin—though our natural reserves steadily decline with age, and also after unprotected UV exposure. This is precisely why reserach as concluded that applying CoQ10 topically has serious skin-aging benefits9.
Vitamin A—aka retinol
Retinol, perhaps the most well-known and sought-after topical ingredient to stave off skin aging, is actually vitamin A, and it's also a potent antioxidant. Topically, retinol works to speed up skin cell turnover rate, thereby improving tone and texture, treating UV damage10, fading fine lines, and even clearing up acne. You'll find many types of retinoids both OTC and in prescription form, which can make picking out the right one feel very overwhelming (see: what you need to know about retinol for more).
Another subgroup of antioxidants, polyphenols are plant-based micronutrients that are jam-packed with antioxidant power. In the skin care world, you'll find polyphenols derived from things like green tea, pomegranate, and red wine.
Studies have found that topical application of polyphenols can help repair skin, protect it from sun damage, and even reverse signs of skin aging11 (like dark spots, fine lines, and wrinkles). When used in combination with sunscreen, green tea polyphenols, specifically, have has been shown to have an ultraprotective effect against UV rays12 and subsequent photodamage.
Extracted from soybeans, studies ave found that soy has antioxidant abilities12 that can help fade hyperpigmentation, boost skin elasticity, and prevent photodamage to the skin. For those with acne-prone and/or naturally dry skin, soy extract can also simultaneously moisturize the skin and curb oil production. What's more, unlike other antioxidants that can increase skin's sensitivity to the sun (ahem, retinol), the healthy aging benefits of soy extract13 are suited for daytime wear, according to research.
Rebecca Dancer is a beauty and lifestyle writer who obtained a print and digital journalism degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She’s worked at and contributed to various print and digital publications, including Byrdie, Allure, Brides, Teen Vogue, Beauty Independent, Shape, SELF, and Women's Wear Daily.