Lately, we've seen a piqued interest in the antioxidant coenzyme Q10, with people curious about its use in both topical products and oral supplements. But with curiosity comes questions and confusion. In the case of coenzyme Q10, that confusion usually comes down to its types and names: Why do you sometimes see coenzyme Q10 as ubiquinol—or even ubiquinone? Well, we're here to explain the difference.
What is coenzyme Q10?
First up, let's go over the molecule itself. It's a coenzyme, meaning it helps enhance the actions of key enzymes in the body. CoQ10 is a unique coenzyme in that it's also a fat-soluble antioxidant1 found in almost every cell of your body. It comes in two forms—ubiquinone and ubiquinol—and your body produces the compound naturally, although your levels do drop as you get older. Antioxidants are substances that help neutralize free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can be natural byproducts of many cellular reactions (think our immune cells responding to an invader), as well as things like internal stressors, UV exposure, and pollution.
"People often ask how many antioxidants you should be using regularly; the answer is: the more the better," says board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group about the role of antioxidants in the body. "The more you can help neutralize unstable molecules caused by free radical formation, the longer you can salvage the health of your cells and skin. There's really no limit to how much you can protect and repair your body!"
And all antioxidants come with their own set of benefits and specialized focus areas for health. CoQ10, in particular, plays several critical roles in the body. The below is not an exhaustive list—for that please check out our guide to CoQ10—but it can give you a good indication of what you can expect if you decide to take it via supplementation or topical products.
Its primary role in the body is to support energy production. It's specifically used in the mitochondria, or "powerhouse" of the cells, where CoQ10 transports electrons in your mitochondrial pathways, which in turn produces energy (i.e., ATP energy from the carbohydrates, protein, and fats we consume daily). Because this happens in every cell in the human body, CoQ10 supports overall health, too.*
Like all antioxidants, it fights free radicals. But it's not just any antioxidant. In fact, it's the only fat-soluble antioxidant1 naturally made by the human body. Additionally, it also helps protect against lipid peroxidation2, a process by which free radicals break down lipids in cell membranes. Finally, it helps regenerate other antioxidants in the body, supporting the free-radical-neutralizing power of other antioxidants you are ingesting or using.*
It also supports skin health, thanks to its antioxidant and energy-promotion abilities. When used via topicals, research has found that topical CoQ10 can significantly decrease facial wrinkles3. And a clinical trial found that CoQ10 supplements reduce the appearance of wrinkles and lines4 while enhancing skin smoothness.*
What is ubiquinol?
The difference in the two types of CoQ10 comes down to molecular structure—specifically, ubiquinol contains a hydrogen bond, whereas ubiquinone has been oxidized (the hydrogen bond has been removed).
Ubiquinol is the form of coenzyme Q10 that is considered to be the "active" form of the antioxidant, as it is the bioactive form that's utilized in the body. Because it is the active form, it does not need any additional conversion steps to be used by the cells.
Both are present in your body, and your body actually converts the two back and forth naturally as required by cellular pathways. However, ubiquinol is the most prevalent form5, accounting for 90% of the CoQ10 in the blood.
As mbg's vice president of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, explains, "CoQ10 is found ubiquitously—hence the name, ubiquinol, the active form of CoQ10—in every cell of your body." Ferira adds, "In your cells' mitochondria, ubiquinol is a vital part of cellular energy production from nutrition we consume daily. A real multitasker, ubiquinol is also a powerhouse antioxidant."*
What is ubiquinone?
To revisit the structural differences between the two forms: ubiquinol (the active form) contains a hydrogen bond, and ubiquinone has been oxidized therefore removing the hydrogen bond. Ubiquinone must be converted to ubiquinol (add a hydrogen bond) in the body before it can perform its functions.
However, because it is the oxidized form, it's also much more stable in specific formats—specifically, ubiquinone comes in handy in certain emulsions and topical formulations.
Which one should you use?
You'll see both forms show up in supplements and topicals. And there are benefits to using one over the other depending on the format of the product.
For example, in orally consumed dietary supplements, you should look for ubiquinol. Because this is more clinically bioavailable and effective at affecting CoQ10 status and oxidative stress biomarkers6, it is used in certain premium supplements in order to reach peak efficacy.* "The Kaneka® form of ubiquinol specifically is the most researched and has stabilization technologies and patents to boot," explains Ferira. "You'll also find ubiquinone in many CoQ10 supplements on the market, but just know: It's less bioavailable and biologically active (and thus, cheaper)," adds Ferira.
Given the nature of topical formulations, cosmetic chemists use the more stable version, ubiquinone. Because skin care topicals contain multiple ingredients, preservative systems for aqueous formulas, and are often readily exposed to air, they need more stabilized actives; otherwise, the ingredient's efficacy will be reduced when it comes in contact with other ingredients, water, and oxygen.
There are many benefits to adding the antioxidant to your routine (from smooth skin to ATP energy production).* But understanding how to best utilize CoQ10 in your daily routine comes down to understanding the intended use (topical and/or supplementation) and key differences in its two types: ubiquinol and ubiquinone.
For healthy aging antioxidant supplements to look for, check out our guide to antioxidants for the skin.*
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.