The Role of Antioxidants
05 Jun 2018


According to analysts Mintel, antioxidants are the most popular skincare ingredient ever. In fact, cosmetics using the word ‘antioxidant’ were estimated at $3.9billion, of which skincare takes lead with $2.2 billion1. So is this hype or something to live by?

Antioxidants have long been known for their health benefits, but their contribution to skincare is relatively recent knowledge. What exactly is an antioxidant? What do they do and why are they so important for skin health?



In order to understand the essential role that antioxidants play in skin health, it is important to first have an understanding of free radicals and for that we need to do a little chemistry lesson. Everything in the universe is made up of matter and matter is made up of atoms. Atoms have a nucleus in their centre containing positively charged protons and electrons. Circling the nucleus are orbits which contain negatively charges electrons. An atom is stable, when there are the same amount of protons as electrons and this makes for a happy atom. Free radicals are atoms where at least one electron in the outer orbit has been knocked off. These atoms become very unhappy and desperately want to remain stable, so they steal an electron from a neighbouring atom. This sets off a chain reaction of instability which results in damage to the DNA of our cells, weakens the cell membrane, alters collagen, fractures elastin and can even cause skin cancer. A great example of free radical damage is rusting and only recently has it been realised that biological systems can be ‘rusted’ by free radicals. We generate free radicals naturally (every time we breathe) and actually need a degree of them for our natural energy production and as an important mechanism for defence against infection. However, overexposure to UV light, intense exercise, pollution, smoke, poor diet etc. result in uncontrolled oxidation and cellular damage. One puff of cigarette smoke contains over 3 trillion free radicals. This is where antioxidants in the form of vitamins and nutrients play a vital role. They neutralise free radicals by supplying the missing electron, thereby preventing damage and protecting the cell.


When it comes to skincare, it’s important to remember that antioxidants work most effectively when used both orally and topically to protect against free radical damage.

“To get great skin, you need to make sure you’re consuming high levels of antioxidants. Eating the right foods will help, but you should also be taking them in supplement form”, says Lorraine Perretta, Head of Nutrition for the Advanced Nutrition Programme™ “Antioxidants work in synergy, so it’s not a good idea to take just one in isolation – for example taking a vitamin C supplement on its own won’t give you the breadth of protection you need.”

Just as oral antioxidants shouldn’t be taken in isolation, the same can be said for those that are applied topically. Dr Des Fernandes, a leading aesthetic surgeon and founder of Environ® Skin Care, recommends using a combination of several which all work in synergy. “When we supply the skin with high levels of vitamin C, we find that levels of vitamin A in the skin increase, this may be because vitamin C helps preserve vitamin A. We also find that levels of vitamin E rise. This is one of the reasons I believe that a brigade of antioxidants is so essential rather than the simple replacement of vitamin A or E" he concludes.


Vitamin C is water soluble and found abundantly in nature. The human body cannot produce vitamin C, therefore it can only be obtained through diets. As well as stimulating collagen production in the dermis, topical and oral applications of vitamin C have also been found to improve the appearance of photoaged skin2. Vitamin C is an essential part of the antioxidant brigade to protect against free radical damage from the atmosphere and from ultraviolet light. This is why antioxidants work well when added to sunscreens as they quench free radicals generated by UV exposure. Furthermore, vitamin C in particular can also be used after sunburn. Another remarkable attribute for vitamin C is that it also reconditions vitamin E, once it’s been “used up” in the body, and allows it to be rejuvenated and become an antioxidant again.


Lutein and lycopene are both antioxidant carotenoid complexes that give plants their pigments. They are responsible for the vibrant orange, yellow and red colours in fruit and vegetables. As with all antioxidants, they both help to deactivate free radicals. In a study by the Institute of Experimental Dermatology, a sample group was given an antioxidant supplement containing the phytonutrients lycopene, lutein, betacarotene and selenium. After 10 weeks, skin density had increased by 7% and thickness had increased by 14%. Scaling and roughness decreased by 60% and 33% respectively1. Lutein also protects skin against blue light, which is essential for preventing pigmentation and also for protecting eyesight.


Did you know astaxanthin is the reason flamingos have their pink colour? A naturally-occurring carotenoid, astaxanthin is found in the algae flamingos eat. It gives plants their reddish colour in certain types of seafood, including salmon, lobster, crabs, trout and shrimp. Astaxanthin is most commonly known for its anti-ageing properties. A recent study found that astaxanthin can improve skin condition at all layers such as the stratum corneum, epidermis, basal layer and dermis when combining oral supplementation and topical treatments3. Astaxanthin, is often hailed as nature’s most powerful antioxidant, as most antioxidants can handle only one free radical at a time, but astaxanthin can handle up to 19 or more4.



Resveratrol is a bioflavonoid antioxidant and is an essential part of the anti-ageing process. It is found in red grapes, red wine, dark berries, such as blueberries and bilberries. Topical applications for resveratrol have been shown to accelerate wound healing with greater epithelial growth, more collagen, more elastin and improved skin architecture. Resveratrol also protects against UVB and UVA rays. It rejuvenates the DNA of cells and protects DNA from free radical damage5.


Green tea is often referred to as a superfood, as it is richer in antioxidants than other tea. It is made from the Camellia sinensis plant and unlike regular teas, it doesn’t undergo processing, therefore retains its colour and nutritional content. The health benefits of green tea derive from its abundance of polyphenols. Polyphenols play a critical role in neutralising free radicals, suppressing inflammation and supporting cell signalling in the body6. Green tea has been shown to have DNA-protective effects even during exposure to environmental contaminants such as cigarette smoke7. Green tea is effective both topically and orally.


Although it is not commonly known as an antioxidant, vitamin A has strong antioxidant characteristics. Betacarotene is a pre-cursor to vitamin A and as with all carotenoids, betacarotene is an antioxidant. Unlike other carotenoids, such as lycopene and lutein, betacarotene can be converted into vitamin A in the body. As an antioxidant, Betacarotene prevents premature skin ageing by reducing oxygen damage caused by UV light, pollution and other external stressors. Betacarotene is an important defence against infra-red rays that produce huge amounts of free radicals.


Antioxidants are crucial for skin health. Skin is under constant attack from free radical damage and the best way to protect it is by both topical and oral applications of antioxidants. Antioxidants work in synergy and at different cellular levels. No single antioxidant is superior to another so it’s important to combine as many together as possible. Fundamentally, encouraging clients to address their diets and supplement with the right antioxidant rich vitamins and nutrients to support their topical skincare regime will have them on the right path to skin protection and perfection.

1 Source: Cosmetic Design. Survey carried out by US market researcher Packaged Facts. 2 Pandel R, Poljšak B, Godic A, Dahmane R. Skin Photoaging and the Role of Antioxidants in Its Prevention. ISRN Dermatology. 2013;2013:930164. doi:10.1155/2013/930164. 3 Cosmetic benefits of astaxanthin on humans subjects* Kumi Tominaga, Nobuko Hongo, Mariko Karato and Eiji Yamashita* The Journal of the Polish Biochemical Society - Vol. 59, No 1/2012 43–47. 4 5 Juhasz, B., et al, Resveratrol: a multifunctional cytoprotective molecule. Curr Pharm Biotechnol, 2010.11(8):p.810-8 6 Afzal M, Safere AM, Menon M. 7 Al-awaida W, Akash M, Aburubaiha Z et al. Chinese green tea consumption reduces oxidative stress, inflammation and tissue damage in smoke exposed rats. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2014;17 (10): 740-6. Ho