Antioxidant serums are a great addition to skincare routines when it comes to preventing the signs of aging. Most of us know some of the factors that have an impact on how fast and how well we age: diet, UV exposure, and smoking. These 3 factors have one thing in common: a role in oxidation.
There has to be a balance between antioxidants and oxidation in order to prevent damage, chronic inflammation and disease. When too much free radicals are generated our natural antioxidants defenses get overwhelmed.
Two very important things you may not know about oxidation are that:
- UV radiation and smoking are not the only two external factors playing a role in free radical formation. Stress, lack of sleep, pollution, and even visible light are major contributing factors.
- Besides the antioxidants produced by our own organism and those we get through the diet (fruit and vegetables), topical antioxidants are very effective at protecting the skin against the internal and external factors that cause the generation of free radicals in the skin.
Why do we need antioxidant serums in our skincare routine?
While a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and the supplementation of antioxidants boost our antioxidant defenses in general, very little is delivered to the skin; adding an antioxidant serum to our skincare routine specifically protects the skin and boosts its defenses against the many external factors causing premature aging.
Below here we review some of the many antioxidants currently available in skincare formulations.
Antioxidant vitamins in skin serums
Vitamin B3 – Niacinamide
Vitamin B3 is a water-soluble molecule that can easily penetrate the skin when applied topically. It has many benefits to the skin and leads to improved texture and pigmentation, but it is also a precursor to two potent intracellular antioxidants: NADH and NADPH.
Vitamin C – Ascorbic acid
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient for the structure and function of the skin, being involved for example in the synthesis of collagen fibers. Its topical application improves skin texture and pigmentation; not only vitamin C is a potent antioxidant itself but also has the ability to help regenerate another antioxidant: vitamin E.
Vitamin E – alpha-tocopherol
Vitamin E is the major fat-soluble antioxidant in human skin and as such it protects the cellular membranes of skin cells from the attack of free radicals. Once oxidized by a free radical, it can be converted back into its reduced form (active form) by vitamin C which is why the two work well when used in combination. Vitamin E is good at providing additional photoprotection against UV rays and at preventing photoaging.
Other Popular Antioxidants in skin serums
Ubiquinone – Coenzyme Q10
Ubiquinone, most commonly known as coenzyme Q, gets his name from the fact that it is present in the mitochondria, the energy factories, of all living cells. Besides its role in energy production, in the skin it is also a potent antioxidant that protects collagen and hyaluronic acid from UV damage and helps restore Vitamin E levels. Coenzyme Q10 decreases with aging and its topical application may also help restore its levels and improve some of the signs of the aging skin, although more research is needed on this front.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid – ALA
Alpha-lipoic acid is both a water- and fat-soluble antioxidant very effective against many forms of reactive oxygen species; it also has the ability of regenerating other antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, glutathione and coenzyme Q and for these reasons it has an important role in protecting the skin against UV damage.
There are countless antioxidants derived from plant material and their use in the cosmetic industry is increasing. They are commonly known as polyphenols, flavonoids and anthocyanins to cite a few but we’ll cover them more in detail in a dedicated article. Some of the most common botanicals in skincare are:
- Green Tea Extract also known as Camelia Sinensis extract or as EGCG
- Resveratrol, derived from grapes
- Lycopene, derived from tomatoes
- Pomegranate extract
- Pycnogenol (extract from the bark of French sea pine)
- Grape seed extract
- Ferulic Acid, found in the cell walls of many plants, fruits and vegetables.
The variables in antioxidant skincare products and take home message
Antioxidant levels decrease with aging and with exposure to environmental factors such as pollution and UV rays. Topical antioxidants seem to be effective at protecting the skin from photodamage and at preventing aging, but the claims about their effects on already existing lines and wrinkles are not backed by rigorous research.
With every skincare product or cosmeceutical there are always variables affecting their efficacy.
Containing one ingredient known to exert a certain effect or to have a certain benefit for the skin is not enough to guarantee that we will experience such effect or benefit:
- Is the concentration of the active ingredient high enough to be effective? *
- Is the formulation stable or will the antioxidants breakdown before being applied due to light, heat, pH or interaction with other ingredients?
- Is the antioxidant ingredient bioavailable meaning it can be absorbed by the skin when topically applied?
Although brands share the same active ingredients, they don’t share the same formulation. Some of the changes in the formulation may help a product be more stable or better absorbed and in general the same active ingredient can be effective or ineffective depending on the overall formulation.
When it comes to antioxidant supplementation, both with oral supplements and with topical formulation, experts agree that the best course of action is to use multiple active ingredients: they are often synergistic and work in slightly different ways so variety improves the final result.
Even though antioxidants are marketed and feel like the cure for all diseases, too much of them may be actually harmful. Always refer to your GP before taking supplements and refer to your dermatologist when it comes to skincare advice.
*Please note that although the concentration needs to surpass a certain threshold in order for the active ingredient to be effective, this doesn’t mean the higher the better. Higher concentrations may also cause adverse effects.
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F Liebel, S Kaur – Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Jul 2012
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D McDaniel, P Farris, G Valacchi – Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Apr 2018
- Antioxidants and the skin: understanding formulation and efficacy.
C Oresajo – Dermatologic Therapy, Aug 2012
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S Kang – McGraw-Hill, 2019
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N Scuderi – Springer, 2016
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F Nahai – CRC Press, 2010
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P André – CRC Press, 2016
- Daily Routine in Cosmetic Dermatology.
MC Almeida Issa – Springer, 2017
- American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)
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