• Dawn Naylor BS, RN, MSN, ACNP

Antioxidants in Skin Care: How do they work and which ones are the best?

Image: Healthifyme


Antioxidants are compounds produced in your body and can be found in several different types of foods. They help defend your cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals.

According to an article published on PubMed about free radicals, antioxidants in disease and health, "when an overload of free radicals cannot gradually be destroyed, their accumulation in the body generates a phenomenon called oxidative stress. This process plays a major part in the development of chronic and degenerative illnesses such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, aging, cataract, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases" (Pham-Huy LA, He H, Pham-Huy C.)

For the sake of this blog I will discuss skincare; however, don't forget that you can get numerous important antioxidants in your diet! We also offer antioxidant IV therapy!!

Antioxidants in Skin Care

Free radicals and frequent sun exposure can trigger changes in our skin's melanin production, causing dark spots and uneven skin tone. By reducing photodamage, antioxidants can help prevent abnormal skin pigmentations by brightening skin tone.

Some antioxidants (like vitamin C) also work as a tyrosinase (an enzyme that stimulates melanin production) inhibitor. This helps decrease the risk of photodamage and hyperpigmentation.

Antioxidants help skin repair itself.

Inflamed skin impedes the skin's rejuvenation process. By reducing inflammation, antioxidants allow the skin to repair itself and correct visible damage. Some antioxidants, like vitamin C, can also stimulate collagen production, which is vital for youthful skin.

Antioxidants may help prevent skin cancer.

Some antioxidants, such as vitamins A, C, and E, have anti-carcinogenic properties and may help prevent skin cancer.

What are some of the common antioxidants (highlighted are my favorites)?

  • Vitamin C

  • Retinol (Vitamin A)

  • Vitamin E

  • Resveratrol

  • Coenzymeq10

  • Niacinamide

  • Polyphenols

  • Flavonoids

  • Glutathione

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant having the ability to protect the skin against free radical damage. It also evens skin tone, and promotes collagen production, and is an essential nutrient required for the growth and repair of tissues. It is inherently unstable and the product needs to be kept out of the sun (hence the opaque packaging).

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an important vitamin required for the proper function of many organs in the body, including the skin. Aside from being a powerful antioxidant, vitamin E is widely recognized for its ability to accelerate the skin's healing process. No wonder it is often found in moisturizers, creams, and lotions formulated to treat dry skin as well as products designed to reduce stretch marks. See my recommendation for SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic. This has both Vitamin C and Vitamin E!

Retinol (Vitamin A)

If there's one anti-aging ingredient that's been proven time and time again to help turn the clock back on aging skin, it's retinol. A derivative of vitamin A, this ingredient is particularly effective due to its small molecular structure, giving it the ability to penetrate deep enough into the skin that it can effectively stimulate collagen production and accelerate cell renewal and repair, smoothing fine lines and wrinkles and improving skin tone in the process. Whether it's over-the-counter or prescription-strength (tretinoin), retinol is a powerful antioxidant for fighting environmental aggressors that cause premature skin aging. Read more about Retinoids in my previous blog post.


A chemical compound found mostly in the skins of fruits like grapes, berries, peanuts, tea, and red wine; Resveratrol serves as the plant's defensive armor. It's an antimicrobial substance produced by plants to protect themselves from air pollution, infection, intense UV radiation, and extreme climate changes. Some studies also vouch for its cancer-fighting abilities. I tend to recommend this to patients who don't tolerate Vitamin C due to acne. Top choice SkinCeuticals Resveratrol BE.


Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, is a powerful antioxidant that improves the skin's texture and tone. It reduces fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation and exhibits anti-inflammatory properties. The more our epidermal lipid barrier is stabilized, the more it can fully absorb the vitamins and nutrients from our skincare products and achieve optimal results. However, as we age, our skin's ability to heal and retain moisture weakens, leaving us prone to wrinkles, fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and dullness. Niacinamide can help renew and restore the surface of the skin against moisture loss and dehydration by helping the skin improve its natural production of skin-strengthening ceramides. When ceramides become depleted over time, the skin is left vulnerable to all sorts of problems, from persistent patches of dry, flaky skin to increasingly becoming extra-sensitive. If you suffer from dry skin, topical niacinamide can boost the hydrating ability of moisturizers so skin’s surface can better resist the moisture loss that leads to recurrent dry, tight, flaky skin, rosacea, and acne. It can be combined with your favorite skincare products and ingredients, like vitamins A and C, retinol, and hydroxy acids to boost their performance. This is my go-to item to restore the skin barrier when people over-exfoliate and in the winter when your skin tends to be dryer.

How do I use an antioxidant?

It depends on which one you are using. Here are some general guidelines.

  • Retinol goes on at night after you cleanse on dry skin. Apply moisturizer after. (see my previous blog on how often and how to apply).

  • Vitamin C & E typically goes on in the am after you cleanse and dry your face. If you have sensitive skin you may start out using every other day. Neocutis brand goes on last as it has SPF in it. Check the label on your individual product. Vitamin C is inherently unstable and many products don't work because it is not properly packaged. Check with your aesthetic provider so you don't waste your money on a product that has inactive Vitamin C. Tip: if the packaging is clear it is likely inactive. All active vitamin C is in a brown bottle or opaque bottle to keep it from oxidizing.

  • Resveratrol typically goes on first at night.

  • Niacinamide: typically layered after application of Vitamin C. May be mixed in combination products. I add to my patients with dry skin, especially in the winter.

  • Polyphenols, Flavonoids, Glutathione, Coenzyme Q 10 are typically mixed in other products and typically go on after thinner products such as vitamin C.

  • Some antioxidants can be taken orally. These are called nutraceuticals. Stay tuned for a blog on those.

First of all, this is a lot of information. Let's keep it simple. These are the top 3 things you need to be using in your skincare regime!

Physical Sunscreen. I recommend Colore Science Sunforgettable Brush-On SPF 50

Vitamin C: I recommend SkinCeuticals or Neocutis reactive+

Retinol: NeoCutis NOUVELLE+, ZO Wrinkle & Texture, and ZO Radical Night Repair then you may graduate to tretinoin.

If you are using a growth serum/peptide (once your in your 40's and over a must-have) typically that goes on first, then your Vitamin C. A good rule of thumb: always thinner and clearer product first, then thicker and opaque after.

We have a skincare regime consultation you can book if you are having questions about your products. You can also email us questions. I will continue to blog about skincare topics in portion control as to not overwhelm you. Please don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. Our team is always happy to help you get on your individualized skincare regime!


Pham-Huy LA, He H, Pham-Huy C. Free radicals, antioxidants in disease and health. Int J Biomed Sci. 2008 Jun;4(2):89-96. PMID: 23675073; PMCID: PMC3614697.

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