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How do antioxidants for skincare work, anyway?

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This post is part of a series in which we break down buzzy skincare ingredients. Check out the rest of the posts in this series:

The word “antioxidant” is so ubiquitous in the wellness world that you might be tempted to ignore it altogether.

After all, one little buzzword can’t actually apply to everything from olive oil to skin cream to that smoothie pack in your freezer aisle—can it?

Tempting as it is to brush antioxidants aside, the truth is they’re critical to overall health and really, really important for maintaining skin that doesn’t give away all your secrets.

In this post, we’ll talk all things antioxidants in skincare, including why they’re necessary, how they work, and where to find them.

What are antioxidants for skincare?

Antioxidants are a direct line of defense against free radicals, unstable molecules that cause cellular damage when left unchecked.

It comes down to all the work we squeeze out of our skin cells on a daily basis. This natural wear and tear creates an annoying by-product: reactive oxidative species (ROS), also known as free radicals. These cause some major damage in the structures of our cells including DNA, proteins, and lipids.

red bell peppers on a blue background

And as both our largest organ and our main source of direct contact with the outside world, our skin is particularly susceptible.

And how do antioxidants for skincare actually work?

Luckily, our body is pretty good at creating molecules and proteins, called antioxidants, to fend off this damage and repair what’s already been affected. Antioxidants work by reacting with free radicals to neutralize them so they can’t damage the chemistry of our cells.

Given our modern lifestyles, this system isn’t exactly foolproof. When environmental stressors build up, we tip the scales of what our bodies can handle and overwhelm our antioxidant stores.

Think of it as the difference between working out after a good night of sleep and doing it while exhausted.

Sources of Environmental Stress

UV light: our skin’s biggest source of exposure to free radicals is UV light. It’s especially problematic because it both creates free radical damage and depletes our natural antioxidant reserves. There’s some evidence that non-UV wavelengths of light, like the blue light from our screens, also cause free radical damage.

Pollution: another major source of skin aging, this includes gases like ozone, which has been linked to wrinkles, and particulate pollution. And, like UV light, it also reduces antioxidant levels in our skin. Another upsetting double-whammy!

Stressors like lack of sleep, poor diet, chronic stress, and smoking: if you’ve ever suffered a breakout after a particularly stressful week, you know just how much these sneaky little stressors can add up. By placing even the additional strain of daily life on our skin’s reserves of antioxidants, we leave our skin unprotected.

When free radical damage goes unchecked, the results are obvious: signs of premature aging like wrinkles, uneven skin tone, spots, think skin, dry or cracked skin, and impaired wound healing. Antioxidants, including Vitamin C, Vitamin E  Vitamin A, Carotenoids, and Polyphenols (like Sundaily’s polypodium leucotomos extract), mitigate this damage.

woman in a denim jacket with dark hair blowing in the breeze under a blue sky

So, which one should I use?

How do we make sure we’re supporting our body’s natural free radical defenses? We can boost our antioxidant stores with a healthy diet, ingestible skincare, and antioxidants for skincare.

Eat an antioxidant-packed diet: The first, easiest, and cheapest solution is to eat a balanced diet that’s rich in vitamins and minerals from vegetables and fruits. Focus on eating well first—it’s a simple change with the potential to make a big impact. Carrots, pumpkin, and squash for Vitamin A, citrus and peppers for Vitamin C, vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds for Vitamin E, and so on.

Start with The Base Layer: The active ingredient in The Base Layer, Polypodium leucotomos extract (PLE), is a polyphenol-rich antioxidant. It helps combat environmental stressors, and taking it daily is a simple way to ensure you’re not taxing your antioxidant stores too much.

Seek out polyphenol-rich skincare: green tea is a well-established source of beneficial polyphenols. This ingredient is buzzworthy for a reason–multiple studies confirm that when applied topically, it’s great at delivering the antioxidant boost we need straight to our skin. We’re impressed by Boscia’s Green Tea Oil-free Moisturizer.

Look for Vitamins C and E in sunscreen: in addition to using sunscreen daily to protect against UV damage, consider leveling up your routine with a formulation that includes Vitamin C and Vitamin E. Evidence suggests that adding the antioxidants Vitamin C and E to sunscreen can help to boost its effects. We like Derma e’s Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30:

Apply Topical Niacinamide (Vitamin B3): When it comes to topicals, Vitamin C and retinol definitely do the heavy lifting as superstar ingredients (How do retinol creams work, anyway? and How does Vitamin C work, anyway?) for more). But if we could award a Bronze Medal, it’d probably go to niacinamide. We like this Defense Essential Glow SPF 30, which happily combines more than one of the beneficial ingredients mentioned above.

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