How to Protect Your Skin from Free Radical Damage

Meet the microfighters that shield skin from smog and chemicals, and learn how to maximize their power


You can't see it, but your skin is constantly under attack by free radicals-damaging molecules that come from light, pollution, cigarette smoke, and more. (That's why the air around you might be your skin's biggest enemy.) What makes them so dangerous-bear with the chemistry lesson-is that each one is missing an electron, causing them to go on a search-and-destroy mission within the deeper layers of your skin to make themselves whole again. If you plug that electron slot right away, you render them (mostly) harmless. That's essentially what antioxidants do: "They donate electrons, which neutralize free radicals," says Leslie Baumann, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami. "Unchecked, those free radicals are bouncing around, damaging collagen and spurring hyperpigmentation. Stopping them ensures that your skin stays firm, even, and smooth."

Doctors, and possibly you, have known for a while that antioxidants work this way, and derms recommend applying antioxidant products daily. But what experts are finding now is that there's more to them than the ability to lend electrons. "Research shows that antioxidants can reverse dark marks, accelerate healing, and keep your complexion acne-free," Dr. Baumann says. Take full advantage with this key info. (And check your zip code to see if you live in one of the best or worst cities for your skin.)

Combos work best.

There are countless antioxidants, most from natural sources. "In developing skin-care products, we look to what nature uses for protection," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. And certain antioxidants are especially potent when applied topically, including vitamins C and E, ferulic acid, phloretin, resveratrol, green tea, grapeseed extract, coenzyme Q10 (a.k.a. ubiquinone), and idebenone.

There's also strength in numbers. "In nature, antioxidants work synergistically. We mimic that relationship in cosmeceuticals," says Patricia Farris, M.D., a clinical associate professor of dermatology at Tulane University. Antioxidants also stabilize and power up one another. "For example, vitamin C is good but not as good as C and E together, which is not as good as C, E, and ferulic," she says. Try the powerhouse combos in Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Hydrating Shield with idebenone, ferulic acid, and green tea ($68, or iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance+ ($142, with vitamins C and E.

Start and end your day with them.

Derms used to recommend antioxidants for only the a.m., since skin isn't exposed to much at night. "But now research shows inflammation from daytime UV damage can persist for several hours after exposure, so antioxidants can be useful in the evening, too," Dr. Zeichner says. At night, use resveratrol and coenzyme Q10. "Resveratrol turns on the mechanism your body uses to make its own antioxidants," Dr. Farris says. And that preps skin for the next day's battle. Meanwhile, coenzyme Q10 upregulates ATP, which cells need for energy. "Every repair process requires ATP; the more you have, the better," Dr. Baumann says. That's especially true at night, when skin shifts into repair mode. Try Caudalie Resveratrol Lift Serum ($82, or Jan Marini Age Intervention Peptide Extreme with coenzyme Q10 ($99, The one antioxidant to avoid at night is vitamin C; see "Vitamin C can be finicky."

Antioxidants are workhorses.

Free radicals can damage sebum (your skin's natural oils), which then promotes inflammation around follicles and can lead to breakouts, Dr. Zeichner says. "Inflammation is a driving factor in acne and precedes the pimples themselves." But if you incorporate antioxidants into your routine, you can keep pimples at bay. For the occasional breakout, however, swap out antioxidants for acne therapies. "That's because I've found that vitamin C can make existing acne worse," Dr. Baumann says. And vitamin E, a lipid-soluble antioxidant, may be too heavy for those with clogged pores. (Here's help on finding the perfect routine for your skin.)

Antioxidants can also control the overproduction of pigment in skin, which is what causes uneven tone and sunspots. Infrared light, a.k.a. heat energy produced by all types of light and things like the stove and even your blow-dryer, can turn on skin's pigment-making cells, Dr. Zeichner says. Sunscreens like SkinMedica Total Defense + Repair SPF 34 ($68, are formulated with antioxidants to address both UV and infrared light; SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic ($163, has a combo of vitamins C and E and ferulic acid to pull double duty: Research shows it blocks damage from infrared light, plus vitamin C prevents the formation of melanin. Cut off the flow of melanin, and over time pigmented cells slough off to make way for more even-toned skin.

Lastly, antioxidants help skin heal because they have anti-inflammatory properties. Derms are applying antioxidants immediately after laser procedures and recommending that patients continue to use them during the recovery process. Doing so reduces red- ness after a treatment by a day or two and increases wound healing, according to a study in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine, which compared a vitamin C, E, and ferulic serum with a control.

Vitamin C can be finicky.

It's high-maintenance, but put up with it because it's so worth it. "Vitamin C doesn't play nicely with glycolic or salicylic acids or retinol," Dr. Zeichner says. It's most effective in a low-pH environment, and those ingredients are often formulated at a higher pH, he says. That's not to say they can't coexist. Look for a product that formulates them to work together, such as Philosophy Time in a Bottle ($75,, which has you mix the vitamin C into the retinol-laced formula. Or use vitamin C in the morning, then go with an antioxidant such as resveratrol at night.

Heat, light, and air can break down antioxidants, but vitamin C is particularly vulnerable, Dr. Baumann says. Look for products in opaque, airtight containers. And consider the source. "Some online products are stored in hot warehouses that render them worthless," she says. Buy at a store or directly from the brand's website. Also, be sure to look for "L-ascorbic acid," the most potent form of vitamin C, on the ingredients list, Dr. Farris says. (Speaking of vitamins, see which foods wil help you battle certain skin conditions.)

You'll want to eat them too.

Just how important are dietary antioxidants for skin? "Huge! Some topicals can't reach the deep layers of the skin and antioxidants in foods and supplements may not make it to the top layers," Dr. Baumann says. The research is promising: People who ate two to three additional portions of fruit or veggies a day for six weeks had changes in their skin tone that were seen as more attractive to others, according to a study in the journal PLOS One. Another study, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that women with higher intakes of vitamin C were less likely to have wrinkles. Dr. Baumann's bottom line: "You want protection from the inside and the outside." (Here's more on antioxidants that you eat, not apply.)

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