The Very Best Antioxidants for Your Skin, According to Dermatologists

Vitamin C is a biggie, but it’s not the only one worth your time and money.
Sliced citrus antioxidant skin care concept on pink and turquoise background
Getty Images

All products featured on SELF are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

“Antioxidants” is an undoubtedly buzzy term in the health and wellness space. You’ve likely heard about them in the context of food, but (topical) antioxidants for skin are also hugely popular. And for good reason: Not only can these potent compounds do a lot for your overall health, but antioxidants can also protect skin from environmental aggressors, as well as minimize signs of aging.

In order to understand how they work, exactly, let’s start with a quick science lesson: “An antioxidant is a substance that helps protect against the effects of free radicals, highly reactive molecules that damage cells, DNA, and proteins in the body,” Robyn Gmyrek, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Derm in New York City, tells SELF. Simply put, free radicals are unstable molecules; antioxidants help stabilize (and therefore neutralize) them before they can take their toll.

Antioxidants are also unique in that they’re one of those universal skin care ingredients (like hyaluronic acid) that anyone and everyone can—and should, if you ask the dermatologists we spoke with—use, no matter their age, skin type, or complexion concern. The one caveat? They’re not all created equal. There are tons of topical antioxidants for skin out there—just google “antioxidant serum” and you’ll see what we mean—and there are important nuances among them. Even within the elite subset of options that are widely considered to be the best of the best, there are some noteworthy differences you’ll want to keep in mind.

Here, dermatologists explain why antioxidants deserve a spot in your skin care routine and share their best advice for choosing and using them.

Skin benefits of antioxidants | Disadvantages of antioxidants for skin | The best antioxidants for skin | How to use antioxidants in skin care

What are the benefits of antioxidants for skin?

In short, they combat free radicals—again, those nasty little reactive molecules that can wreak havoc on your skin. “Think of antioxidants as a sponge that sops up free radicals,” Sandy Skotnicki, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto department of medicine, tells SELF. Free radicals (which can originate inside the body or via external factors like air pollution and UV radiation from the sun) cause what’s known as oxidative damage.1 This not only harms the DNA of skin cells and impairs their ability to function properly, but it also destroys collagen and elastin, the two proteins responsible for giving skin its elasticity or bounce, Dr. Skotnicki explains.

Free radicals also hinder the skin’s natural ability to repair itself, hitting you with a one-two punch, Julie Russak, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells SELF. A helpful visual for just how problematic they can be? Cut an apple in half and leave it on your kitchen counter for a day. The brown and shriveled appearance it quickly takes on? That’s oxidative damage and it’s a good representation of what can happen with your skin when it’s exposed to free radicals, according to Dr. Russak. Specifically, everything from fine lines and wrinkles to uneven tone to laxity can all be tell-tale signs of free-radical damage, she notes.1

It’s worth mentioning that free radicals are basically impossible to avoid. “Small amounts of them are formed through normal body processes every day, but the skin has an internal antioxidant defense system to neutralize them and protect itself,” Dr. Gmyrek explains.2 However, the issue is that there are many other external, environmental factors—namely UV exposure, pollution, and cigarette smoke—that produce tons of free radicals. “When this happens, the skin's natural protective system gets overwhelmed and damage occurs,” she says. Enter the, um, beauty of upping your defenses via topical antioxidants, which can help to both prevent and repair some of that destruction.

Back to top

Are there any disadvantages to using antioxidants?

All of the experts SELF spoke with agree that there really aren’t many. Some antioxidants may be a bit more likely to cause irritation (itching, burning, redness in some skin tones) than others. However, as a class, they’re certainly not notorious for uncomfortable side effects such as peeling and dryness, as is the case with potent ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid, Dr. Skotnicki points out.

The biggest potential pitfall is that an antioxidant skin care product may not be as effective as it claims to be. Finding one that works, remains stable (i.e., the antioxidants stay active and effective), and can actually penetrate deep enough to do its thing isn’t always easy, she notes. The overall formulation of the product, as well as the type and concentration of the antioxidants, will dictate its efficacy, adds Dr. Gmyrek.2 To that point…

Back to top

The best antioxidants to add to your skin care routine

Broadly speaking, any antioxidant is better than no antioxidant, but there are some standouts that are worth seeking out, as well as some that may be better suited for certain skin types.

Vitamin C

This was a universally recommended top pick among all of the experts SELF consulted. Dr. Skotnicki notes that there is plenty of clinical data to back its efficacy, which isn’t the case for many other antioxidants on the market. What makes vitamin C so unique? Along with fighting hard against free-radical damage, it also addresses hyperpigmentation and helps with collagen production (meaning it can smooth fine lines and wrinkles), she says.3

A few caveats: The majority of clinical studies on topical vitamin C are based on l-ascorbic acid, the most potent and pure version, which can be a bit irritating, particularly for those with more sensitive skin, Dr. Skotnicki points out. L-ascorbic acid is also water-soluble, meaning it dissolves in water; this poses an issue since skin cells are hydrophobic (they repel water), adds Dr. Russak. “As such, it needs to be formulated in an oilier base, which those with acne-prone skin may not like,” she says.

While l-ascorbic acid is considered the gold standard, there are other forms of vitamin C worth considering. Both Dr. Gmyrek and Dr. Russak call out textrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THD), as it’s both highly stable and tends to be better tolerated in those with sensitive skin. Other gentler forms include magnesium ascorbyl phosphate and ascorbyl palmitate; it may be worth seeking out one of these alternate versions if your skin is easily irritated. (Here’s more guidance on exactly how to use vitamin C in your skin care routine.)

Niacinamide

You can also consider niacinamide, or vitamin B3, if you’re concerned about irritation. “While it’s not as strong as vitamin C, it’s very well-tolerated and anti-inflammatory, so it’s great if you have sensitive skin or even rosacea or eczema,” Dr. Russak explains. On top of that, it can help improve skin barrier function, regulate oil production, and reduce redness and hyperpigmentation, says Dr. Gmyrek.3 Niacinamide is available in both over-the-counter and prescription versions, and we’ve got a bunch of advice on how to use it and what to look for. (FYI, it’s typically been studied in 2% to 10% concentrations; 5% is a good middle ground to look for, as SELF previously reported. If the percentage isn’t listed, niacinamide should be one of the first few ingredients on the label.)

Vitamin E

“Vitamin E, or tocopherol, is known for its hydrating properties and can be beneficial for dry or sensitive skin types, as it’s also very soothing,” says Dr. Gmyrek. That’s because it not only helps in the wound healing process and repairs damage, but it can also enhance the skin’s natural moisture barrier and reduce inflammation, she adds.4 Like ferulic acid, the next top-notch antioxidant on our list, you probably won’t see vitamin E as a standalone skin care hero. Rather, it’s often paired with vitamin C (the two work synergistically, and vitamin E can actually help combat the irritating effects of l-ascorbic acid), as well as other antioxidants, since it plays nicely with most, according to the derms we spoke to.

Ferulic acid

As mentioned above, you’ll typically see ferulic acid combined with vitamin C (and/or vitamin E) in serums and other skin care products. That’s because it can help create a more acidic environment that stabilizes the vitamin C, ensuring it stays potent and active for longer, Dr. Skotnicki says. It works harmoniously with other antioxidants, including vitamin E, as well, adds Dr. Gmyrek, although it’s still powerful in its own right.4 FYI: Look for “ferulic acid” listed on the ingredients label.

Polyphenols

This is an umbrella term for a variety of plant-based antioxidants. “It makes sense that plants are rich in antioxidants, given that they’ve had to protect themselves from the sun for billions of years,” says Dr. Skotnicki. Polyphenols are generally good for all skin types, and you’re likely to find them in organic products, or those that market themselves as “natural,” Dr. Russak notes. Common ones worth seeking out include: green- and white-tea extract (you’ll typically see the former listed as EGCG on ingredient labels), lycopene (found in red and pink fruits such as watermelon), pomegranate extract, and sea buckthorn.

Resveratrol is another polyphenol that packs a punch. You may know it as the standout antioxidant in red wine, but it can be good for your skin too. Dr. Sotnicki lauds it for being very powerful, although she does note that the clinical data behind its skin benefits is lacking a bit compared to vitamin C. Still, “resveratrol has been found to have both anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties,” adds Dr. Gmyrek.5 To get the most bang for your buck—with resveratrol or any polyphenol, for that matter—look for products that list it as one of the first few ingredients. That way, you can help ensure you’re getting enough of it to make a difference in your skin.

Back to top

How to use antioxidants

Reaping the laundry list of antioxidants’ potential benefits is actually fairly easy in practice. First, you’ll want to opt for an antioxidant serum; more lightweight than a lotion, it will typically have a higher concentration of active ingredients. It’s also a good idea to look for a product that contains more than one antioxidant. “Each antioxidant offers unique benefits, so a combination of them can provide more comprehensive protection against free radicals,” says Dr. Gmyrek. (Not to mention that many of them work in tandem, as, again, is the case with the powerhouse trio of vitamin C, vitamin E, and ferulic acid.)6

If you’re only going to use your antioxidant serum once a day, do so in the morning, on clean skin, before applying moisturizer and sunscreen. “Even if you’re diligent about sunscreen application and reapplication, the reality is that you’re still going to get some free radical damage from both UV light and pollution,” says Dr. Skotnicki. “Antioxidants act as a second layer of protection throughout the day.” You can totally also use an antioxidant serum at night if you want to—and your skin can tolerate the double dose—but it’s more of a must in the morning.

Just try to be patient: Free radical damage doesn’t show up overnight, and neither will the benefits of antioxidants. In other words, it’s a long game. If you start in your 20s, the effects will likely be much more subtle, since you’re preventing some of that free-radical damage from happening in the first place, which can stave off external signs of aging, says Dr. Russak. But antioxidants are reparative too. If you’re trying to undo previous damage, keep in mind that it can take weeks or longer to notice a change: At first, that'll likely just be increased plumpness and a glowier look to the skin, and it might be a few months before you see a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles, she explains.

Back to top

What about oral antioxidants?

Exactly how much of an effect the antioxidants you’re getting from your diet (or supplements) will have on your skin remains to be seen. “There are very few controlled studies showing that oral antioxidants can have a significant effect on the skin,” says Dr. Gmyrek. (Although she does cite one study that suggests consuming the polyphenols in green tea and caffeine may help prevent photo-aging, as seen in a group of 244 Japanese women who filled out a questionnaire about their polyphenol intake before having their skin analyzed.) That being said, it’s always a smart move to eat a variety of foods rich in antioxidants, like colorful fruits and veggies; they’re generally great for your overall health and are certainly not going to hurt your skin. But topically applied antioxidants are still the way to go in your pursuit of a healthy glow.

The high-level summary: Yes, antioxidants can be a worthwhile, effective addition to your skin care routine. There’s a variety of great options to choose from, each of which have some of their own nuances and benefits. However, the most important takeaway here is that any antioxidant serum is probably better than no antioxidant serum. Looking for a little shopping guidance Consider these derm-approved picks:

Caudalie Resveratrol-Lift Instant Firming Retinol Alternative Serum

Versed Sunday Morning Antioxidant Oil-Serum

Paula's Choice Ultra-Light Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum

Back to top

Sources:

  1. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, Oxidative Stress in the Skin: Impact and Related Protection
  2. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, Antioxidants in Dermatology
  3. Dermatologic Surgery, Niacinamide: A B Vitamin that Improves Aging Facial Skin Appearance
  4. Indian Dermatology Online Journal, Vitamin E in Dermatology
  5. Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy, Resveratrol as an Active Ingredient for Cosmetic and Dermatological Applications: A Review
  6. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Effect of a Topical Antioxidant Serum Containing Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Ferulic Acid After Q-switched 1064-nm Nd:YAG Laser for Treatment of Environment-Induced Skin Pigmentation

Related: