Outside of sunscreen, there’s probably not a category of ingredients more universally beloved by skin experts than antioxidants. With their ability to protect the skin against damage caused by free radicals (those unstable molecules that steal electrons from healthy cells to stabilize themselves, weakening your innocent skin cells in the process), antioxidants are a versatile addition to any skincare regimen.
When it comes to incorporating one into your routine, there is a diverse range of antioxidants to choose from. While they all technically perform the same function of protecting your skin from oxidative stress, blending antioxidants with other ingredients can benefit the skin. It’s all about finding the one that works best with your skin type and concerns.
With that in mind, we spoke to Dr. Mona Gohara, a Connecticut-based dermatologist and associate professor of Dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, and Jennifer Kennedy, a registered nurse at Manhattan’s prestigious PFRANKMD by Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank, to learn everything you need to know about antioxidants. Plus, they share their favorite antioxidant products for every skin type.
How do Antioxidants Work?
To understand why antioxidants are so important for your skin, you have to know how they work. “Antioxidants are substances that are a crucial part of everyone’s skincare routine because they are the hardest working ingredient in the game,” Dr. Gohara says. “Essentially, the sole purpose of antioxidants is to protect your cells against free radicals by giving up some of their electrons, acting as a natural ‘off’ switch for the free radicals.”
Your skin is bombarded by environmental aggressors—like pollution in the air and the blue light from your computer screen—that can cause oxidative stress every day. That damage adds up over time. “Oxidative stress can lead to premature wrinkles, loss of elastin, decreased moisture, increased pigmentation, and a reduction in the moisture barrier,” Kennedy explains.
If you’re looking to protect against free radical damage, any antioxidant will get the job done. However, each of the six tried-and-true ingredients ahead has powerful alternative benefits for the skin.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is loved for its protective powers against oxidative stress and its ability to play nice with other free-radical fighters to maximize efficacy. “Vitamin C is known to fix common complexion concerns such as uneven skin tone, rough texture, fine lines, acne scars, and general dullness,” Dr. Gohara says.
Kennedy notes Vitamin C works best with fellow antioxidants like vitamin E and ferulic acid, an organic compound found in the cell walls of plants like oats, brown rice, and apples. Vitamin C is also a great addition to your daily sun protection regimen. While SPF protects you from the sun’s UV rays, it doesn’t protect your skin from free radicals. Pairing an antioxidant like vitamin C with your broad-spectrum sunscreen will make sure your skin is fully protected.
With a combination of 15% vitamin C and vitamin E, this serum helps with hyperpigmentation caused by sun damage, aging, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It also uses a mix of natural botanicals to aid in brightening, including kojic acid, bearberry, fruit enzymes, and turmeric, which also help prevent future breakouts and minimize the look of fine lines and rough texture.
Featuring a stable, oil-soluble, collagen synthesis-boosting version of vitamin C, this unique moisturizer was designed specifically for those with an active lifestyle. Rather than sitting on top of the skin, it absorbs instantly and hydrates from within, so it won’t leave behind a greasy residue or slide off into your eyes, causing that dreaded mid-workout sting. The addition of prebiotics, creatine, and whey protein energizes, strengthens, and firms skin.
This lightweight serum is a hydrating, brightening, skin-smoothing natural wonder from one of our fave earth-friendly brands. This lightweight serum works on skin’s texture, tone, and firmness without causing the irritation that some vitamin C formulas can create sensitive skin. Use it alone as a moisturizer or layer it under your favorite cream or sunscreen to make them even more powerful.
If dry skin is your issue, Dr. Gohara says vitamin E should be your antioxidant of choice as it provides moisturizing and anti-inflammatory benefits. Kennedy notes that vitamin E is also well known for its wound-healing abilities, making it an excellent option for those who suffer from sensitivity and irritation. You’ll often find it listed on ingredient labels under the name tocopherol. Kennedy says it pairs best with antioxidants like vitamin C and resveratrol.
This serum, which has vitamin C, E, and ferulic acid, is beloved by dermatologists as the top choice for antioxidant protection, thanks to its multi-functional action for all things anti-aging. Word of caution: It has a bit of a funk that takes some getting used to, but we promise it’s worth powering through the distinctive aroma.
This moisturizing sunscreen is formulated specifically for melanin-rich skin. It uses an antioxidant blend of niacinamide and vitamin E to protect against free radical damage caused by outdoor pollution, UV rays, and blue light from your screens. It absorbs quickly and is completely sheer.
Your face isn’t the only area that needs antioxidant protection. Your delicate lip area is also susceptible to oxidative stress. One of the great things about vitamin E is its ability to hydrate and guard against free radicals, something these gorgeous new tinted balms from Róen do with serious style. Made with a mix of reparative and protective plant oils and waxes, these give lips a plush texture and glossy color that looks as stunning as it feels.
“Niacinamide is one of two major forms of vitamin B3,” Dr. Gohara says. “It is often used to manage acne, rosacea, pigmentation issues, and wrinkles.” According to Kennedy, niacinamide can also help reinforce your skin barrier and improve long-term skin health. Its anti-inflammatory properties also make it a beneficial ingredient for people prone to blemishes and blackheads.
This sustainable daily treatment (the glass bottle features a refillable airless pump to decrease waste) is packed with niacinamide, magnesium, zinc, and copper. Together they smooth, soothe, and reduce redness in even the most sensitive skin.
Increase your skin’s radiance and texture over time with this lightweight serum. Made with the brand’s signature alguronic acid to hydrate and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, this formula is also enriched with a unique algae concentrate that controls excess oil and shine. Niacinamide is also present in the formula to even your skin’s texture and tone.
The niacinamide in this pore-purifying toner works to strengthen your moisture barrier and smooth skin’s overall texture, while green tea extract provides additional free radical protection. Mushroom extract and rosa canina extract reduce oiliness and minimize pores’ appearance without drying out your skin for an airbrushed finish.
Kennedy counts retinol (otherwise known as vitamin A) as her “hands-down favorite antioxidant” due to the extensive amount of clinical research around it. “Retinol helps with cell turnover, stimulates collagen, accelerates cell renewal, and repairs damaged DNA,” she explains.
It can be a bit aggressive for those with sensitive skin, so it’s best to start slow with small doses (0.25 percent) and work your way up in strength and frequency. It can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so be sure to use an SPF 35 or higher when wearing a retinol product. If you opt for a higher concentration retinol product, incorporate it into your evening routine and substitute an alternate antioxidant like vitamin C as your day option.
This daytime retinol is the perfect blend of antioxidants, moisture, and glow. It combines a stabilized retinol derivative (something the brand is well-known for), plus a mix of other antioxidants that include niacinamide, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid. Together, they provide free radical protection as they work to even skin tone, increase cellular turnover, enhance skin texture, hydrate, plump, and firm. It also contains a responsible mica alternative that creates a “shimmery sunbeam effect” on your skin.
With 1% vegan retinol, this anti-aging cream blends peptides, vitamins, and oils to provide skin with an even tone and texture without the irritation usually associated with retinol. Marula, apricot, jojoba, and passionfruit oils help reinforce the skin’s lipid barrier and moisturize as the retinol works its magic. The specialized peptide trio firms and strengthens for an overall more youthful-looking complexion.
This potent overnight cream combines niacinamide with retinol to help soothe skin, minimize sensitivity, and smooth skin. The rich cream takes advantage of your skin’s overnight reparative cycle and helps firm, brighten, hydrate, and strengthen it while you sleep.
A diverse group of organic compounds found in plants and fruits, polyphenols are one of nature’s most potent antioxidants. “There are thousands of polyphenols like resveratrol, green tea, black tea,” Kennedy says. “These antioxidant powerhouses are great in repairing sun-damaged skin.” They also have anti-inflammatory and skin-calming properties, making them an ideal option for easily irritated skin types.
This lightweight, fast-absorbing serum drenches thirsty skin in oil-free moisture and polyphenols derived from grapes for all-day protection and hydration for all skin types.
This cream combines 1% hyaluronic acid with full-spectrum, hemp-derived CBD, and a gorgeous array of flower essences. It leaves your skin petal soft and guards against free radicals. The featherweight texture provides ample hydration without feeling sticky, while hibiscus peptides help enhance radiance for an overall dewy, plumped, and smooth complexion.
This waterless oil serum gets its polyphenol punch from plum seed oil sourced from France and is shown to be particularly effective at preventing oxidative stress. It’s also anti-inflammatory and hydrating, giving skin an immediate and long-term plumping and firming effect. It’s combined with the natural retinol alternative bakuchiol, nourishing dragon fruit seed oil, barrier-repairing camellia seed, and dark spot-fading licorice root extract. Together, they give your skin a balanced, refined, and radiant appearance.
When people think about hyaluronic acid, their first thought is usually focused on its hydrating qualities. After all, it can hold 1000 times its weight in water and draw hydration into the skin. However, recent research has shown that HA is also a supremely effective antioxidant that scavenges free radicals and keeps skin in peak health, allowing it to better defend itself from environmental aggressors. “Hyaluronic acid helps prevent free radical damage and also stimulates wound healing,” Dr. Gohara says. “It helps reduce the visibility of fine lines and wrinkles while retaining moisture to the skin, creating almost a plumping effect. Often, when skin is protected and hydrated, increased skin cell production will take place, leading to softer, smoother, and more youthful skin.”
This anti-aging serum is formulated with 1.5% hyaluronic acid, peptides, and pro-vitamin B5 (a deeply hydrating moisturizer with anti-inflammatory qualities). It helps restore lost skin hydration and plump fine lines for an instantly smoother, more youthful appearance.
These liquid drops contain hyaluronic acid, sea kelp, and lemon fruit water (which is rich in vitamin C). The shimmery bronze hue gives skin of all colors a subtle glow and can be used all over by combining a few drops with your favorite moisturizer. You can also use it strategically as a highlighter on your cheekbones, nose bridge, and chin.
This daily lotion is made with hyaluronic acid, squalane, proteins, and naturally derived oils. It provides instant surface hydration and deeper moisturization. It also helps strengthen your skin’s barrier to help it better hold in moisture over time. With continued use, the result is healthier, glowing skin.