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The health of the skin is a reflection of our internal health. Just as antioxidants protect organs and tissues inside us, they are critical for the skin. Antioxidants could be even more important for skin health given all the skin comes in contact with daily.
“The health of the skin is a reflection of our internal health. Just as antioxidants protect organs and tissues inside us, they are critical for the skin. Antioxidants could be even more important for skin health given all the skin comes in contact with daily.”
If you have skin issues, aging skin, or are interested in prevention, this article is for you. I will dive into antioxidants and how you can use them to improve your skin’s appearance and health. We’ll talk about outer, topical solutions and deeper, inner solutions.
Keep reading to learn more about:
What Are Antioxidants?
To understand antioxidants, we first need to understand free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that, when left unchecked, cause damage to cells, including cell membranes, protein structures, and DNA. Damage increases the permeability of cells as they lose their defense. (Source 1)
From a chemistry perspective, free radical molecules don’t have a full set of electrons and are searching to “steal” electrons from other molecules they encounter. Antioxidants donate electrons to free radicals to stabilize them. These free radical-antioxidant reactions take place in every cell.
Free radicals are produced by normal cellular function. Some are a product of metabolism that takes place in mitochondria. Free radicals are also produced by immune cells during inflammatory attacks on invading pathogens. Our cells house antioxidants to balance the effects of these normal processes.
So, we need free radicals. But, when free radicals are in excess and not balanced with enough antioxidants, damage to cell structures occurs. This causes oxidation, or oxidative stress, which can lead to disease. (Source 1)
We are exposed to excess free radicals in daily life. Sources include:
We face an onslaught of free radical exposures in modern life, which makes antioxidants more important than ever.
“We face an onslaught of free radical exposures in modern life, which makes antioxidants more important than ever.”
Free Radicals and Aging Skin
The skin is the largest organ and a protective barrier between the external environment and the internal body. The skin contacts the world, its pollution, chemicals, UV radiation, and more. A healthy skin barrier is required for protection and to maintain homeostasis. (Source 1, 2)
Skin cells face constant exposure to free radicals, from both internal and largely external sources. Free radical exposure, without adequate antioxidants, causes a breakdown in skin defenses. The results are a pattern of accelerated aging and disease. (Source 1)
“Free radical exposure, without adequate antioxidants, causes a breakdown in skin defenses. The results are a pattern of accelerated aging and disease.”
Free radicals damage the epidermis (outer skin) and dermis (deeper layer of skin). They harm cell membranes and important skin components like ceramides, keratinocytes, and other cells. This increases inflammation, changes DNA expression, and increases the risk of skin conditions, including:
Free radicals disrupt barrier defenses and affect the skin’s appearance, contributing to visible signs of aging. Free radical damage looks like:
Antioxidants and Skin Health
As you can see, the skin faces an enormous burden of free radicals, and antioxidants are critical for maintaining healthy skin and preventing premature aging.
Not surprisingly, the skin contains a large concentration of antioxidants. Antioxidant levels exist in a gradient, with the highest concentrations found in the outermost layers of the epidermis. (Source 2)
The skin defense system contains a complex network of antioxidants. Some of these the body makes and the diet (and supplements) supply others. Antioxidant compounds found in the skin include:
Antioxidant-rich foods and the antioxidant compounds they contain support skin health. These include:
There are so many more foods that contain antioxidant compounds beyond this list. You’ll get them by eating a variety of colorful plant foods in the diet.
Nutrients in Dermatology and Skincare
If you’ve been to a dermatologist or aesthetician, you might have received a treatment containing antioxidant nutrients. Let’s look at a few.
Niacinamide, also called nicotinamide, is a form of vitamin B3. It’s a precursor to NAD+, essential for energy production in all cells. (Read more about NAD+ and the benefits of supplementation here.)
NAD+ and NADH convert back and forth, demonstrating antioxidant properties. It also helps to maintain the master antioxidant, glutathione. (Source 4)
As a topical application, vitamin B3 stabilizes the epithelial barrier of the skin and has a moisturizing and hydrating effect. It helps to improve keratin (a structural protein in hair) and ceramides (part of the lipid barrier in the skin). Topical use reduces wrinkles and other signs of aging. It may have a clinical application for rosacea, acne, and pigmentation disorders. (Source 5)
Retinoids are a group of synthetic and natural compounds that include retinol, the active form of vitamin A, used extensively by board certified dermatologists for various skin conditions.
Retinoids were first used in the 1940s to treat acne. Today they are for much more, including managing sun damaged skin for brightening effects, even skin tone, and improving skin structure and health. (Source 6)
Normal skin is rich in vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which is a potent antioxidant to protect and heal the skin. In addition, vitamin C assists in collagen production. Collagen is a primary protein that gives the skin its structure, allowing for plumpness and hydration. As we age, a decline in collagen (and vitamin C) contributes to skin aging. (Source 7)
While vitamin C in the diet is essential for skin health, vitamin C serums have risen in popularity as a topical application. A vitamin C serum is an antioxidant serum that targets the outer layers of the skin. It provides free radical protection as the skin contacts UV radiation, pollution, and other factors each day.
Improving vitamin C levels supports:
Using Antioxidants in Your Skincare Routine
Now that we’ve covered how critical antioxidants are for skin health and healing, and we’ve seen evidence that they are already being applied in dermatology, it’s time to up your antioxidants to improve your skin. Here’s how:
Our skin faces the world every day and has a big job. Antioxidants help the skin protect the body, are anti-aging, and help us to look and feel our best.