Antioxidants - what they are and why they matter in skincare (and everywhere else too)

Antioxidants - what they are and why they matter in skincare

No matter when you began your "skincare journey," anti-aging has likely entered into your mind at one point or another as you peruse shelves or websites for the best products for your skin. Since we have not yet figured out how to avoid the effects of aging, we are always looking for ways to improve our skin health. During all of this searching, you've probably come across antioxidants once or twice. It's often difficult to understand "what exactly IS an antioxidant" and "how do antioxidants work?"

One way to help achieve healthy skin is by including antioxidants in our skincare routine. But what are antioxidants and why do they matter?

woman face up in water with orange, lemon slices all over

Antioxidants play a crucial role in protecting our cells from the harmful effects of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause cell damage, leading to inflammation and accelerated aging. Antioxidants scavenge these molecules, preventing them from damaging healthy cells.

Including antioxidants in your skincare routine is a great way to promote healthy skin. There are many different types of antioxidants, and often you may be able to find a single product with multiple different antioxidants inside.

The definition of an antioxidant

Antioxidants are an important part of a healthy lifestyle—but what exactly are they? Simply put, antioxidants help fight free radicals, or molecules with unpaired electrons, which can damage our skin cells. Free radicals form as a result of environmental aggressors such as air pollution or UV radiation and can cause oxidative stress to our skin. Luckily, dozens of natural antioxidants – such as vitamin C, astaxanthin, vitamin E, ferulic acid, niacinamide, vitamin A, and retinol – effectively counteract the damaging effects free radicals can have on our skin cells. Incorporating antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries or acai into your diet is great for skin AND health. You can boost antioxidant protection by applying antioxidant serums with the right ingredients for your skin.

What is a free radical and why are they problematic?

Free radicals are unstable atoms or groups of atoms that attempt to stabilize themselves by snatching an electron from a nearby molecule. The molecule is then destabilized and must rob an electron from another molecule, starting a chain reaction. Crazy, right? It’s a little hard to understand at first, but all you need to know is the process damages cells, including epidermal cells – and that’s what you see in the mirror every day. We can't fully avoid them but we can protect our skin from excess free radicals that damage cells, causing illness and human skin aging through oxidative damage.

Free radicals are linked to aging skin and a host of diseases, but little is known about their role in human health, or how to prevent them from making people sick.

Free radicals are part of everyday life, caused by environmental stress like pollution, blue light, and UV radiation from the sun. These unstable atoms can cause significant damage to cells — including those on our skin — when not properly countered. We now know they can cause a variety of illnesses and speed up the aging process, making it more important than ever to understand how free radicals are created and how they can be neutralized. Fine lines and wrinkles, skin diseases and decreasing skin elasticity....these can all be caused by free radicals. By incorporating specific antioxidants into our daily routines – like vitamins C, E, A, Retinol, Niacinamide, Ferulic Acid, and Astaxanthin – we can protect our skin cells from free radical damage and help keep ourselves (and our skin!) healthy and radiant.

How do antioxidants fight free radicals?

Antioxidants are one of the most important ingredients in any skincare routine. They work hard to protect our skin cells from damage caused by free radicals. Think of antioxidants as defenders of your skin and health. By giving up some of their electrons, antioxidants can effectively “turn off” free radicals, preventing them from causing further damage. This helps to keep our skin looking healthy and youthful.

The benefits of including antioxidants in diet and skincare

pints of blueberries and blackberries at a farmers market.  face down shot

Good health and wellness start from the inside out and this includes our skin. Increasing antioxidant consumption through foods and incorporating antioxidant-boosting products like serums, and multi-use products can help to strengthen our cells (and bodies) while also protecting against environmental factors that damage delicate skin cells. While there are a plethora of antioxidant skincare products out there, that is only one piece of the puzzle. Ideally, we can consume a diet that includes antioxidant-rich berries, dark leafy greens, nuts, and seeds, and we can add further antioxidant power through topical serums or creams. Approaching healthy skin with a holistic view will result in the best benefits and hopefully more youthful skin.

Vitamin A & retinol

leafy kale

As skin care and wellness have become increasingly important in our lives, we are lucky to have a wide range of choices available to us. Vitamin A, also known as retinol, is a fantastic addition to any skincare routine. This nutrient helps skin cells stay healthy by supporting skin growth and renewal. It has the power to reduce skin problems like wrinkles and acne, so using a topical serum or cream with retinol can be beneficial for many skin types. It can even help heal acne scars and improve skin's texture. Few antioxidants are more associated with anti-aging than this one.

Don’t forget about nutrition too; including foods high in vitamin A, such as kale and sweet potatoes, into your diet may help you reach your skin goals from the inside out.

Vitamin C - dark spots, be gone!

Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is one of the essential vitamins for healthy bodies, and it also has a lot to offer in terms of skincare. Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant found naturally in citrus fruits and some vegetables, helps support good health when consumed as part of a balanced diet. Additionally, topical treatments like vitamin C serums provide numerous skin benefits due to their strong antioxidant power. A good vitamin C serum helps stimulate collagen production and prevent the signs of premature aging. It can also prevent and treat sun damage. Applying topical vitamin C may help reduce signs of skin aging - wrinkles, sagging - and it can even out skin tone by suppressing melanin activity. Dark spots, be gone!

Now it probably makes sense why there are so many Vitamin C serums out there. It is a powerful product and is relatively easy to find an antioxidant serum with Vitamin C - at many price points.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a powerhouse antioxidant with a range of therapeutic benefits and is essential for health. Although there are eight different types of vitamin E, tocopheryl acetate and tocopherol are commonly used in skincare products for their antioxidant properties, helping to reduce inflammation and promoting healthy skin. Vitamin E is used to address a wide range of skin conditions. Vitamin E can improve skin texture and has anti-inflammatory properties. It is great for all skin types, including dry skin and rough texture. However, it doesn't stop there - adding vitamin E to your diet has numerous added antioxidant benefits too.

Niacinamide - uneven skin tone has met its match

Niacinamide is a must-have for any skincare routine – it's a great moisturizing ingredient for sensitive skin, with natural anti-inflammatory benefits that can be calming to irritated skin. As well as providing key moisture, niacinamide works wonders to reduce the appearance of pores and uneven skin tone, offering a healthier and more radiant complexion. Make niacinamide your go-to SOS ingredient the next time your skin needs some TLC.

Astaxanthin - where does it fit?

When it comes to skincare, astaxanthin is a powerful ingredient that's hard to beat. Found in various foods, astaxanthin is an incredibly potent antioxidant, so much so that it is up to 3000 times more effective than Vitamin C, based on lab studies. Its antioxidant properties protect against UV rays and free radicals, preserving the skin and even reducing wrinkles and hyperpigmentation! Studies have found that astaxanthin also has amazing moisturizing effects on the skin, making it an ideal product for those with sensitive skin or those who want to preserve their natural elasticity - umm, aren't we all? Astaxanthin is a bit harder to find (and more expensive) which is why it isn't in more products but you can find them without looking too hard.

Polyphenols....hello green tea, black tea, and resveratrol. We see you!

Polyphenols are powerhouse compounds that can have many antioxidant benefits for skin and health. Dermatologists love them for the prevention of aging skin, and more acutely, skin cancer. Green tea, black tea, and resveratrol are all good sources of polyphenols. Green tea extract contains substances called catechins which neutralize free radicals that form when overly exposed to UV rays. Black tea has been found to help reduce sunburns and the appearance of wrinkles. Resveratrol is a potent antioxidant present in red wine that plays an important role in protecting our skin from aging. Not saying that you should put down a bottle of red wine regularly (!!!) but a glass may be well-deserved. And if it helps address fine lines and wrinkles....well, it sounds like a win. It is fairly easy to find these ingredients in moisturizers, masks, serums, and more. And obviously, you can consume them in their standard form - green tea collagen latte, anyone?

Bakuchiol - what is it and where does it fit in?

We are always on the hunt for natural, plant-based alternatives to traditional skincare materials, which is why bakuchiol stood out when we started experimenting with it a few years ago. We heard it was effective at addressing fine lines and wrinkles but had not yet tried it in our own products. Not only is bakuchiol a plant-derived retinol alternative, but it has the same anti-aging and skin-smoothing benefits as retinol without causing other the skin issues commonly associated with retinol (like dryness, flaking, redness, and general irritation). It's a great way to help reduce wrinkles while still treating your skin with respect.

Hyaluronic acid antioxidant?

You likely know hyaluronic acid as a hydration agent but guess what? It is ALSO an antioxidant! As a hydrating powerhouse, hyaluronic acid is becoming increasingly popular as an effective and safe way to keep skin hydrated and healthy. Not only can it increase moisture levels in the skin and protect the skin barrier, but hyaluronic acid also boosts the skin's antioxidant defenses, allowing it to better resist environmental aggressors. No matter what your skin type—sensitive, oily, dry, etc. — hyaluronic acid is a safe hydrator for all.

Flower acids and skincare - are they antioxidants?

Flower acids have become increasingly popular in recent years and you can find them in toners, serums, and more. Honua's founder, Kapua Browning, has been using flower acids for many years, probably decades at this point. They are more in the AHA category but do have antioxidant power. Floral acids can have powerful AHA acid antioxidants that benefit your skin in a variety of ways. For example, hibiscus extract has been found to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and keep skin looking bright and vibrant. These same antioxidants can also be used for acne treatment. There are many other options as well. We love hibiscus (obviously) but have started to see more floral acids in use as well so find one that works for you.

So many options for antioxidants! I am so overwhelmed! How do I decide when to use what and can I mix them?

It can be so tempting to mix antioxidants and vitamins and just layer upon layer upon layer. We love skin layering more than just about anyone, but when it comes to potent antioxidants, it's important to do a little research first. Some antioxidants and vitamins should not be mixed due to the potential for negative reactions or adverse effects on the skin. Most combinations are fine but some combos can lead to such problems, especially Vitamin C and niacinamide, or Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Incorporating multiple antioxidants into your routine is a perfect way to dive into skin cycling - the practice of incorporating different serums on different days so you aren't inadvertently mixing two that don't go together. Doing a bit of research first will ensure that you can create a routine that brings out your best complexion without any unwanted complications. Don't let enthusiasm cloud your judgment: antioxidants are powerful ingredients and should be used with intention.


So what does this mean? Where do I start?

Overall, focus on balance. Try to balance a healthy diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables should contain enough antioxidants and you can include multiple topical antioxidants in your skin care regimen. A holistic approach will boost antioxidant effects and help with cell renewal and overall skin health.

Of all the questions we get, antioxidants are near the top - what are they, how do they work, what is the difference between A and C and E, etc. We haven't found a great source for clarifying how they are different so we created this. There are other antioxidants out there so feel free to share your favorite and we can update and include. Hopefully, it is helpful and provides some clarity and perhaps inspiration for adding them to your routine!


What are your favorite antioxidant options? Food, skin care, anything!


Mahalo to the photographers Anthony Tran, Kier in Sight, Erda Estremera for sharing their beautiful images!

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