What Are Topical Antioxidants?

We recently posted an article about antioxidants: what they are, how they fight free radical damage and why you should include them in your skin diet, both via food and topically. There’s a lot of good information there, including background on how thuggish free radicals resort to theft and battery to do their dirty work, and how antioxidants use generosity to thwart them.

In short, however, here’s the gist: the more antioxidants in your beauty arsenal, the more protection and anti-aging support you provide your skin.

What’s so special about topical antioxidants?

Let’s now do a deep dive and take a closer look at exactly why you should apply antioxidants to your skin, and not just look to food as the sole method of delivery. While a good and varied diet has long been viewed as the best way to unleash the free-radical-fighting brawn of antioxidants, studies suggest that to reap the full rewards of these anti-aging powerhouses, it pays to look beyond diet alone.

That isn’t to say you can neglect antioxidants at the table. Food-based antioxidants¹—and the key here is “food-based”; taking too many supplements can be harmful²—are are crucial to good skincare.³ But in addition to the fact that topical antioxidants augment the work of those taken in via food, research shows they offer skin distinct advantages in and of themselves.

Antioxidants for acne

To begin with, topical antioxidants just might be the key to managing acne. As detailed in an earlier post that highlights the beneficial role topical antioxidants play in treating adult acne, contrary to popular belief, breakouts are not caused by an excess of oil. In fact, studies show that stripping the skin of beneficial oils results in the glands working overtime to replace that oil, which in turn leads many people to turn to harsh soaps and chemicals that compromise the skin’s barrier. The result? Sensitized and dehydrated skin that is even more susceptible to environmental damage and breakouts. Adding insult to injury, oil-free moisturizers, which conceivably should help limit breakouts, are actually emulsified (held together) with pore-clogging waxes, which of course only leads to further breakouts.

Natural oils contain no clogging waxes, and thus nourish and protect skin while keeping it hydrated and pimple-free. In fact, as noted by one New York-based dermatologist, using oils to treat blemish-prone skin is “based on the premise that like dissolves like.” So as crazy as it seems, if you’re prone to breakouts, antioxidant-rich oils are your best friend.

Topical antioxidants as a sunscreen aid

Increasing evidence also shows that topical antioxidants also play a crucial role when it comes to sun exposure. In an article on skin potions, Dr. Andrew Weil points to evidence that topical preparations containing vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium can help repair sun-damaged skin. A excerpt from his post:

    • Vitamin C: Applying topical vitamin C 15 to 30 minutes after sun exposure prompts repair of damaged skin. In an animal study, topically applied vitamin C minimized damage from chronic exposure to ultraviolet light.
    • Vitamin E: A number of studies have found that topical natural vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol) can lessen sunburn AND reduce UV-induced damage, including occurrence of cancerous cells.
    • Selenium: This antioxidant mineral appears to preserve tissue elasticity and slow the aging and hardening of tissues due to oxidation…[A]nimal studies have shown that taken orally or applied topically in the form L-selenomethionine, selenium protects against both daily and excessive UV damage, with less burning after exposure.

Many additional studies back him up, including a report in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal that notes that vitamin C is equally effective against both UVA rays (which do a lot of the damage that results in premature skin aging) and UVB rays (which play a significant role in the development of skin cancer). All of which makes vitamin C an excellent supplement to sunscreen, given that sunscreen blocks just 55 percent of the free radicals produced as a result of UV exposure. And while vitamin C doesn’t work by absorbing UV light, the researchers report that it “exerts [a] UV-protective effect by neutralizing free radicals,” an effect not seen with sunscreen use alone. Using laboratory conditions, the authors were able to show that a 10 percent concentration of topical vitamin C reduced UVB-induced redness by 52 percent and sunburn cell formation by 40 to 60 percent.

Their recommendation? Combine sunscreen with topical antioxidants such as vitamin C, which they said is finding “increasing use in photoageing, hyperpigmentation, tissue inflammation and promotion of tissue healing…[and] thus holds promise as a mainstream drug in future dermatology practice.” (According to numerous reports, including one in The Dermatology Review, in addition to helping reverse skin damage from overexposure to the sun, vitamin C may also stimulate collagen production.) Like Dr. Weil, the authors of the above vitamin C study also give a shoutout to vitamin E, adding that although vitamin C “alone can provide photoprotection, it works best in conjunction with vitamin E. Both their research and a later study published in the same journal found that vitamin E increases the action of vitamin C by four to eight times.

Another incentive for adding topical antioxidants to your skincare diet comes via research published in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, which shows that when topical resveratrol (a powerful antioxidant found in grapes, berries, peanuts, dark chocolate and red wine) was applied to hairless mice 30 minutes in advance of exposure to UVB, it inhibited both tumor formation and photo-damage.

The many benefits of topical antioxidant application before sun exposure are thus becoming increasingly clear. But for one compound, post-treatment application also shows promise. The researchers studying the effects of resveratrol also found that applying the compound to the hairless mice following UVB exposure protected skin just as well as skin that was pretreated, suggesting that resveratrol, at least, acts as more than a sunscreen.

And if you’re looking for even more anti-aging help, there’s yet another reason to embrace antioxidant-rich topical products. According to a study that appeared in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment, researchers found that adding a topical antioxidant serum to a facial microdermabrasion regimen showed enhanced clinical and microscopic changes over microdermabrasion alone. (Microdermabrasion is a non-invasive procedure that uses a spray of tiny crystals to buff away the outermost layer of dead skin cells to reveal smoother, younger-looking skin.) They concluded that the “combination should strengthen the use of microdermabrasion as a non-invasive facial rejuvenation tool and support the role of topical antioxidants as anti-aging factors.”

Two methods of antioxidant absorption are better than one

All of which is great, but can’t you just get the same protective and healing benefits from food? Not necessarily. According to the authors of the resveratrol study, when the compound was administered orally or via injection, the result was poor bioavailability. Simply put, the resveratrol was being metabolized too quickly by the intestine or liver, thus limiting its ability to reach its target. Because resveratrol “disappears from the plasma in such as short time,” the authors wrote, “it is difficult to use systemically as a drug treatment.” Topical administration, they concluded, offered a way to circumvent gut and liver metabolism, making it a more efficacious form of delivery.

As it turns out, there are metabolization issues with orally administered vitamin C as well, since its absorption in the intestine is limited as a result of the way certain molecules move across the cell membrane. As noted in a study published in Prime, a peer-reviewed journal focused on aesthetic and anti-aging medicine, even in the case of “high doses of oral across supplementation, only a small fraction of [vitamin C] will eventually be biologically available and active in the skin.” Translation: not enough of the nutrient makes its way into the skin. As a result, the researchers said, “for any discernible role of its actions in the skin, vitamin C needs to be supplied topically.”

Workaround for a vitamin’s short shelf life

Which raises yet another issue. According to numerous studies, including The Dermatology Review report cited earlier, despite the great potential inherent in topical vitamin C, it only stays “effective in skin care products for a short period of time once the product has been opened and is exposed to the environment.” Researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University echo that finding, reporting that while the nutrient in its natural form (ascorbic acid) is the most effective for topical administration, it is also the least stable in solution, and that exposure “to air, heat and/or light may slowly degrade [it].”¹ Compounding the problem is that synthetic derivatives that could be used instead have their own drawbacks, including limited permeability, function, and absorption.

All of which makes it clear that although scores of products containing vitamin C line beauty shelves—each promising more than the next—it’s important to realize that not all solutions are physiologically effective. The challenge, then, comes in finding a formula that is stable and permeable (yes, we do offer one).

In any case, here’s some good news: the Pauling Institute found that “the stability of topical vitamin C solutions may be increased by the addition of other antioxidant compounds.”

Once again, antioxidants to the rescue!



¹ The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841576/pdf/1475-2891-9-3.pdf]

² Should you get your nutrients from food or from supplements? [http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-get-your-nutrients-from-food-or-from-supplements]

³ 9 Antioxidants That Can Help Prevent Premature Skin Aging [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dermapproved/personal-health_b_4212190.html]

⁴ Preparing Your Own Skin Potions? https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/hair-skin-nails/preparing-your-own-skin-potions/

⁵ Vitamin C in dermatology [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3673383/]

⁶ L-ascorbic Acid [http://www.thedermreview.com/l-ascorbic-acid-acid/]

⁷ Vitamin E in dermatology [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4976416/]

⁸ Topical antioxidant application enhances the effects of facial microdermabrasion [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18720185]

⁹ The effects of topical vitamin C on the skin [https://www.prime-journal.com/the-effects-of-topical-vitamin-c-on-the-skin/]

¹⁰ Vitamin C and Skin Health [http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/vitamin-C]