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Antioxidants: What Are They and Do We Really Need Them?

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Antioxidants.  We hear about them all the time and we know they’re an important part of skincare…But what actually are they and what do they do?

I’m definitely no scientist (seriously, there are small geckos in the Amazon with a better grasp of chemistry than me), but I am a beauty journalist; so in my eternal quest for skin that glows brighter than the sun I’ve snuffled out some antioxidant-related facts.

I’ve put what I learned into a short overview for anyone- like me- who just wants to know a little more about what goes into their skincare and why.

So here goes!

Free Radicals

Sadly (for a total science dunce like me anyway), to understand antioxidants we first have to know what free radicals are (I’ll keep this quick, I promise).

Free radicals are atoms which have been made unstable by missing an electron.

Since atoms normally contain a pair of electrons, when one is missing they attempt to stabilise themselves by snatching up that missing electron from another cell- often one of our healthy cells.

The result of this damage to our proteins, cells and DNA.

And in terms of skin damage, this can also present itself as hyperpigmentation, loss of skin firmness, or fine lines and wrinkles.

Produced by pollutants, UV, cigarette smoke and other toxins, free radicals are also present in some foods (especially fried foods- kind of a bummer) and some chemicals.

This makes sun worshippers and city types some of the most vulnerable groups for free radical damage.

In fact, one study in Germany carried out by Clinique found those who live in high-pollution areas (so basically any city) had 22 per cent more hyperpigmentation.


So now we know what total rotters free radicals are, where do antioxidants come in?

Well luckily antioxidants act like a tiny little shield for our skin; stepping in and lending free radicals a spare electron.

Medical News Today says that “antioxidants are substances that can prevent or delay some types of cell damage by counteracting free radicals and oxidative stress.”

“According to a 2021 review, antioxidants help protect the skin from harmful UV radiation, which can accelerate skin aging. Antioxidants, such as carotenoids, are a vital part of the epidermis, and zinc is necessary for new cells to form. Selenium helps inhibit wrinkle formation, and vitamin E may protect against skin cancer.”

This helps prevent damage to our other healthy cells- whoop whoop!

Where to Find Them

Ok, so antioxidants are important, but how do we make sure we’re including them in our routines?

As luck would have it, we get a lot of antioxidant protection already within our bodies from some of the foods we eat.

These include goodies like fruits, vegetables, some oils and even tea, while berries get an honorable mention for being especially antioxidant-rich (the show-offs).

Mayo Clinic states that “plant-based foods are the best sources. These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, and even cocoa.”

But for added protection from free radicals harming skin from the outside, there’s a huge number of skincare products that can help.

One of my absolute favorites is a specific antioxidant product, Drunk Elephant’s D Bronzi Anti-Pollution Sunshine Drops, which contains black currant seed oil and grape seed extract to neutralise free radicals before they can damage skin.

But before running out and buying any expensive products, it’s worth having a look at your existing collection for any antioxidant protection lurking in them.

Look out for ingredients like vitamin E (often named tocopherol in skincare), vitamin B (also called niacinamide), polyphenols, flavonoids, reverstatrol, or green tea.

Meanwhile one of the most effective and common skincare antioxidants is vitamin C.

Also great for brightening and reversing hyperpigmentation, vitamin C goes by several different names in skincare, including ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate.

Some forms of vitamin C are more suited to particular skin types or issues though, so for any specific product recommendations take a look at my 5 Favourite Vitamin C Products for All Skin Types.

When to Use Them

Antioxidants can protect skin at pretty much any point of the day or night but they’re most usefully applied at the beginning of the day.

This means your skin has the most protection from that all that pollution etc you come across throughout the day (especiialy important for commuters or city dwellers).

Equally, whether you’re sun worhsipping on the beach or even outside for sports, an antioxidant-rich product will help to protect from UV-related free radical damage.

Since antioxidants can be found in most types of skincare products- from serums to moisturisers and even some SPFs- just layer them in the order you would normally use your routine.

And for anyone a bit lost as to what order products should generally go in (and I don’t blame you- routines seem to have become a bit over-complicated in the last few years), the general rule is to go from light textures and formulas (like serums) to the heavier ones (like moisturisers).

Also make sure to leave a good 30 seconds between applying layers to give each product a chance to absorb.

I personally use my D Bronzi as a final step after moisturising, mixed in with my SPF.

Sun Protection

While antioxidants are a general all round goodie, they don’t offer SPF protection. So please (please please) pair your product with a broad spectrum (that means both UVA and UVB protection) SPF of at least 30.

The Takeaway

Antioxidants are one of those rare skincare ingredients which can (and should) be used by every single skin type.

They’re also one of those ingredients that doesn’t really offer much of an immediately obvious result, so it could be tempting to skip.

But the payoff is likely to be in 20 years time when skin is generally brighter, firmer and healthier than it otherwise would have been (you’re welcome!).

In skincare they are most commonly used topically in serums or moisturisers- so look out for products containing fruit and vegetable extracts, like grapes, blueberries, melon, white and black tea extracts, and even oils from some types of nuts and seeds.

Research shows antioxidants also help protect our skin from the inside out, offering an extra anti-ageing boost- another good reason to pack in the fruit and veg!



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Sally Underwood is a journalist, *serious* beauty fan, and Editor-in-Chief of Live That Glow. Formerly Editorial Director of one of Europe's largest newspaper groups, Sally has been a beauty obsessive since her teen years spent dragging her long-suffering (but immaculately-groomed) friends around every beauty counter in London. She now leads Live That Glow's editorial operations.

Expertise: Skincare, Body care
Education: University College London
  • Tatjana CVEJIC


    What a great, understandable post!!! Love it! ?????

    14th November 2019

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