What’s the science behind antioxidants – and do we really need them in skincare?

We’re told all the time in beauty marketing that free radicals are wreaking havoc with our skin and we need antioxidants to step in to save the day.

But what are free radicals and how much damage, if any, do they actually do?

Well, essentially free radicals are incomplete atoms that roam around looking for electrons to complete them.

For that reason they are unstable and react quickly with other substances.

We often hear this can lead to oxidative stress both within the body and in our skin.

When oxygen molecules split into individual atoms that have unpaired electrons, they become unstable free radicals.

A build-up of free radicals begins the process known as oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress can damage the body’s cells, triggering disease and causing the signs of aging, including wrinkles.

As the body ages, it loses its ability to fight the effects of free radicals as effectively as it once did.

This leads to more free radicals, more oxidative stress, and more damage to cells, which contributes to the degenerative process we know as aging.

Why do we need antioxidants?

That’s why we hear nutritionists encouraging us to eat a diet which is high in antioxidants because they are chemicals that interact with free radicals and neutralise them by donating some of their own electrons.

And it’s also why eating a healthy, varied diet that is rich in different sources of plant-based fibre, is one of the best things we can do to preserve our health and slow down the aging process.

A 2021 review paper from researchers at Jan Kochanowski University in Poland found including dietary and supplementation sources of antioxidants including vitamins A, C, E, polyphenols and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids to be one of the best ways to improve the skin’s condition.

But skincare companies have also been fast to pick up on the anti-aging benefits of antioxidants by creating topical treatments.

The question is how effective are they when applied in a skin cream or serum?

Unfortunately, as with many skincare ingredients, we don’t have a huge amount of evidence to work with.

What does the science say?

A 2017 review from researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand noted some human studies suggesting a beneficial effect from topical vitamin C for UV protection, particularly when combined with vitamin E.

I’ve also mentioned in a previous column the encouraging but early research around the chemical antioxidant methylene blue.

And research from the University of Ulm highlighted the benefits of combining green tea (which was applied to the skin on cotton pads) with light therapy which was found to improve the outcomes of phototherapy for skin rejuvenation.

As they’re derived from vitamin A, retinoids can also be considered as antioxidant skincare treatments, capable of scavenging free radicals.

However, they are also known to cause irritation in some users and increase sensitivity to the sun so it’s important to wear sunscreen if using a retinol or other retinoid.

So while there is still some way to go in demonstrating in hard scientific terms the benefits of antioxidants in skincare, I use a vitamin C serum daily, alongside a retinoid every other day, and will apply an antioxidant-based serum before using my LED red light mask at night in an attempt to boost the benefits.

Science-backed antioxidants

Maysama’s Green Rooibos Serum is backed by research carried out with the Nelson Mandela Institute in South Africa suggesting it helps protect against oxidative stress. It’s £46 for 30ml and you can get a 10% discount using this link https://maysama.com/discount/HONEST10 or use code HONEST10.

Bluelene contains methylene blue which research has shown to reduce oxidative stress and support new collagen formation. I use the night cream, daily moisturizer and I use the moisturizing sunscreen. Get 10% off orders using code THEHONESTCHANNEL https://bluelene.com/?dt_id=329188

And I swear by two vitamin C serums, both equally as good. The Medik8 serum is more expensive and is an oilier formula so good for dry skin. The Geek & Gorgeous is a water-based formula but just as effective IMO.

Geek & Gorgeous C-Glow https://go.shopmy.us/p-717360 Medik8 C-Tetra Luxe Lipid Vitamin C Serum https://go.shopmy.us/p-1709966

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