The skincare industry is currently growing at a rapid pace. Within the next decade, the global skincare market is expected to expand from $100 billion in 2021 to $146 billion in 2028. With so many complex ingredients processed into so many different formulations, understanding what you’re putting on your skin can become arduous and tiresome. And while many of these ingredients have limited or nonexistent dermatological benefits, the good news is that most advanced skin care products now contain some type of antioxidants, compounds that protect against skin damage and keep your skin looking healthier.
What are antioxidants?
Before we explain what antioxidants are, we need to discuss what oxidative stress is. Oxidative stress occurs when your body produces too much of a type of molecule called reactive oxygen species (ROS). Your bodies produce these compounds all the time as a by-product of using oxygen and when your body fights against dangerous bacteria. Although ROSs can protect your body from harm, they can also harm your body when concentrations get too high. At that point, ROSs can drive many diseases (learn more: What Is Oxidative Stress And How Does It Relate To Metabolic Health?) and damage your skin. Antioxidants scavenge ROSs and quench them, preventing them from damaging your body.
What do antioxidants do for skin?
There are multiple types of antioxidants. Each of these antioxidants provides myriad health benefits that keep your skin looking fresher and smoother. Some of these antioxidants are vitamins that you typically ingest when eating food; but you can also apply them to your skin.
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is normally found at high levels in healthy people, but is reduced as patients age. Knowing that systemic deficiency of ingested vitamin C caused the infamous disease, scurvy — which produced symptoms such as skin that easily bruises and hemorrhages, it didn’t surprise scientists to learn that applying vitamin C to your skin can provide myriad benefits such as protection from UV light, improving the appearance of skin defects or lesions, and promoting collagen synthesis. Topical administration of vitamin C also helps with wound healing and scar appearance.
- Vitamin B3 (nicotinamidenNiacinamide) is a vitamin, well-tolerated by your skin, that can protect skin cells from oxidative stress. Vitamin B3 can also slow the inflammatory response typical in acne. Japanese women treated with Vitamin B3 in their moisturizer also had reduced hyperpigmentation compared with women who took a moisturizer without Vitamin B3.
- Retinoids (predominantly vitamin A) are effective at clearing acne lesions and removing acne-based blemishes. A 2021 meta-analysis of nine randomized, double-blind, vehicle-controlled clinical trials showed that people who used topical treatment may see mild improvements in preventing facial skin aging. (However, the evidence from this study remains weak, driven by flaws in the study design.)
- Vitamin E is present naturally in your skin as part of a cellular network of redox active antioxidants. Exposure to solar UV-A and UV-B radiation and air pollution substantially depletes vitamin E levels in your skin. Topical skin cream formulators would thus love to be able to address this problem but the evidence supporting vitamin E supplementation for skin disorders is weak, due in part to the lack of placebo controls. Applying topical vitamin E does appear, fortunately, to help protect skin during UV exposure. Vitamin E application reduces the number of sunburn cells, which are skin cells damaged by UV exposure. If these cells grow in number, the risk of skin cancer increases.
In addition to the above vitamins, these other skincare ingredients provide antioxidant effects:
- Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone) is a compound that humans normally produce in their bodies. In your skin, coenzyme Q10 helps maintain proper energy levels and protects against UV-mediated oxidative stress. Declines in the amount of coenzyme Q10 your skin produces are also associated with skin aging and photoaging. Administering topical coenzyme Q10 supplements the coenzyme Q10 produced by the skin to enhance its antioxidant capabilities.
- Resveratrol is a compound increasingly used to treat skin conditions. It belongs to a class of compounds called polyphenols. Resveratrol is found in grapes and derives its success from its ability to penetrate the skin barrier and slow aging.
The protective effects that antioxidants provide also occur when administered together.
- A combinatory treatment of vitamin E (1%) and vitamin C (15%) protects against capillary-driven skin rashes and sunburns after UV exposure. Vitamins can also be used alongside other compounds to provide benefits for your skin.
- A topical formulation containing vitamin C and other peptides improved multiple skin features, including reduced wrinkles, improved skin aging signs, and increased skin hydration.
Could probiotics/prebiotics improve our skin?
In addition to the broad range of antioxidants available now, mixtures of healthy bacteria are also being used to treat skin conditions. The peer-reviewed literature has a nice mixture of established and new probiotics that also function as antioxidants.
- A 2017 study found that the bacterial products produced by a Lactobacillus helveticus strain (found in Mongolian milk) could prevent skin oxidative damage caused by UV exposure.
- A study published just five months ago determined that a skin cream comprised of live lactobacilli (found in healthy skin) reduced skin inflammation driven by bacteria associated with acne, namely Propionibacterium acnes.
- The antioxidant capabilities of lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium) are well documented, particularly for their ability to scavenge reactive oxygen species.
What to consider before buying a skincare product
Looking at the list of chemical ingredients in a skincare product can be overwhelming for anyone. We can simplify this process by providing you with a series of questions to consider when looking for the skin product that works best for you:
- What are you looking for, and can the product help you? As we’ve seen in research studies, different antioxidants provide different sets of benefits for your skin. Applying different sets of antioxidants together also impacts the extent of these benefits. Identify the specific concerns you have with your skin, such as dryness or acne. Then consult your dermatologist about specific kinds of antioxidants you could use to treat your skin.
- Consider topical treatments first. With topical ingredients, active ingredients such as antioxidants touch your skin first before entering your bloodstream. Being able to apply the treatment on your skin prevents side effects that come when the compound passes through your bloodstream. Although we can obtain the aforementioned antioxidants by eating foods in a plant-based diet, topical applications can also target areas of the skin needing treatment or protection and maximize the amount of antioxidant that makes it to your skin.
- Are there concerning side effects associated with a specific product? Side effects also take place for different kinds of antioxidants. For instance, topical vitamin A (tretinoin) for treating acne increases skin dryness and redness. Vitamin E treatment may make facial breakouts worse for people who experience frequent breakouts or have clogged pores. The side effects that come with taking a skincare product also depend on many variables. For instance, people with different types of skin have variations in blood vitamin A concentrations.
At the end of the day, if you would like to know the best way to treat any skin symptoms, the best thing to do is to talk to your medical provider and/or consult with a specialist M.D. in dermatology. Raise questions based on the ones we provide and build on them to find the skincare products that work best for you.
Antioxidants are a vital ingredient in many skin care products, protecting your body from ROSs that damage your skin and so providing unique benefits that can help your skin stay healthy and look better. In addition to antioxidants, clinical researchers are developing new topical probiotic formulations, with a range of substances, that confer similar benefits for your skin. However, with any topical skincare product, there comes the risk of unpleasant side effects, so follow the application directions carefully and stay observant when starting to use a new product; results are highly individualized. Should you have any question as to whether your skin issue is a cosmetic one, or could be a sign of a more serious medical issue, don’t hesitate to contact a dermatologist for expert assessment.