We guzzle them in juices and slap them on our faces, but are antioxidants the skin-saving miracle they’re cracked up to be?
WHAT IS ALL THE FUSS ABOUT ANTIOXIDANTS? We’re told they can prevent everything, from cancer to the impertinent signs of ageing. And the beauty industry is obsessed with them (they’re the most popular skincare ingredient ever, according to global market analysts Mintel). While it might sound churlish to deny their prowess, I’m still a little dubious about their cure-all approach. So, in order to clear up any confusion, I want to know what they do, if they work, and whether all antioxidants are created equal.
WHAT ARE THEY?
Take an apple, cut it in half, leave it out for an hour and watch as the esh turns a murky brown. That process is oxidation, and it’s caused by free radicals in the air. In part, the same thing happens when it comes to our bodies. When we’re exposed to UV, pollution or other stressors such as smoke and chemicals, free radicals form in the skin. At a cellular level, these free radicals can kick off a chain reaction that causes a huge path of destruction and often, ultimately, the death of the cell. But antioxidants neutralise free radicals and halt the process, which means they’re all kinds of awesome. Common antioxidants include vitamins C and E, coenzyme Q10, Idebenone, zinc, copper and betacarotene, but the list is endless – there are millions of them, with many different functions. Our bodies do produce their own antioxidants (made by our cells), which neutralise 99.9% of free radicals. But by the age of 30, our cells can no longer eliminate them fast enough – and that’s when ne lines and collagen depletion set in.
One of the big claims for antioxidants when used in skincare is that they calm in ammation by increasing circulation and cell metabolism. They’re also used for reducing the appearance of scar tissue and repairing sun damage.
HOW ARE THEY USED IN SKINCARE PRODUCTS?
It’s only over the past 10 years that the beauty industry has really woken up to the value of the antioxidant, and using extracts from foods such as pomegranate, green tea, grape seed and mushrooms has become standard practice. I’ve trawled piles of scienti c journals to check
whether they’re worthy of the praise, and it’s true – the facts add up in favour of antioxidants and their effects on the body. But that doesn’t mean they always work as part of a beauty regime.
When formulating skincare products, you can’t just throw in a shedload of antioxidants and hope for the best. There are three key factors involved: how to keep them stable in the product (antioxidants are easily perishable); how well they are actually absorbed into the skin; and what concentrations are necessary to make them effective without being an irritant.
Let’s take the issue of stability rst. The biggest problem is exposure to light, which facilitates the breakdown of antioxidants, rendering them less potent. One way of solving this is by packaging skincare in opaque bottles and metal tubes. It’s a simple measure, but an effective one. And abiding by the ‘use within’ dates stated on the bottom of every product is vital; if it says 6-12 months, stick to this to see the true effects.
Now to tackle antioxidant absorption. We know that when you enjoy a green juice or a load of berries, antioxidants are circulated through the body in our blood and absorbed into the cells. But part of the concern about applying antioxidants topically has been that they may not be absorbed. Dr Mike Bell, skincare scienti c advisor at UK pharmacy chain Boots, explains why this isn’t the case. ‘Topical antioxidants work by quenching the free radicals that are on the skin’s surface, and by supporting the skin’s own natural antioxidant systems in the surface layers of the skin,’ he says. Put simply, they neutralise free radicals on the top few layers of your skin, then trigger your body’s systems to ght anything that’s a bit deeper. Combining them with your internal antioxidants (which we obtain from our diets) is the ideal way to quash oxidation on the inside, too.
Finally, how do we get the right combination to keep our skin looking swell? ‘There are a number of different types of free radicals generated in the skin, depending on what the external stressor is,’ says Mike. ‘But a blend of antioxidants is required to tackle the key free radicals that cause accelerated ageing.’ Essentially, there’s an antioxidant to correct all our environmental ills, you just need to know what you’re looking for.
A WORD ON YOUR SUPERFOOD DIET
Now we know that one antioxidant does not cure all, it makes sense that we’re advised to have variety in our diets. It’s not all about the berries and expensive stuff, either. Superfoods (especially fresh produce) are great, but by the time they’ve reached you they’re not quite so super. Consult the ORAC scale (just Google it), to discover the antioxidant capacity of various foods. Dr Dendy Engelman, Elizabeth Arden dermatologist, also recommends supporting your diet with oral antioxidant supplements – your best bet is a humble vitamin C tablet, because any excess the body doesn’t use is excreted, rather than being stored by the body (potentially dangerous).
The main miscommunication when it comes to antioxidants is that they will solve everything skin-related – they won’t. But, used wisely – in combination with your trusty SPF and a healthy diet – they can form a sound part of any anti-ageing routine, and you should de nitely get on board. I’m entirely convinced, which rarely happens – and sorry that I ever doubted their brilliance.
IT’S ONLY OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS THAT THE BEAUTY INDUSTRY HAS REALLY WOKEN UP TO THE VALUE OF THE ANTIOXIDANT