The Ultimate Antioxidant Skin Care Regimen (A Derm’s Guide)

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The Ultimate Antioxidant Skin Care Regimen (A Derm’s Guide)

Everyone’s main skin concern is aging.  Billions of dollars a year are spent on chasing the fountain of youth; however, it is elusive.

Many products claim to reverse the aging process, but few deliver.

One group of products, that are worth spending time and money on, are antioxidants. Antioxidants help slow down the aging process and are critical to every person’s skin care.

This article is devoted to discussing if antioxidants are good for the skin, the importance of an antioxidant skin care regimen, and how to incorporate it.

Understanding antioxidants (and free radicals)

Understanding antioxidants (and free radicals)

What is an antioxidant?

To take a step back, free radicals are molecules that are unstable because they have an unpaired electron (1).

Stable molecules in nature have paired electrons. Because these free radicals are unstable and in search of an electron to stabilize themselves, they steal it from other important molecules in our body.

When they steal an electron, they destroy the molecule which leads to damage to our bodies.

Antioxidants are molecules that combat free radicals in our bodies, by sacrificing themselves and donating an electron to the free radicals to stabilize them and prevent them from harming our bodies.

We have naturally occurring antioxidants in our bodies, but as we age, we lose the ability to manufacture them (1).  This leads to the aging appearance of our skin.

If we can get antioxidants from outside our body to compensate for this inherent loss, we can slow this aging process down. Antioxidants will help protect and preserve our collagen and elastin, which will keep wrinkles and fine lines from forming, reduce dark spots, calm inflamed skin, and hydrate and revitalize the skin.

Where do free radicals come from?

Free radicals can come from inside our bodies as well as from the environment (1-3).

The free radicals that come from inside our bodies are derived from normal metabolic activities (digesting food), stress, illness (cancer), inflammation (arthritis), medical conditions (high blood pressure, diabetes), and even exercise.

The free radicals that come from the environment, include UV rays from the sun, pollution, cigarette smoke, toxic chemicals, processed foods, and infrared radiation.

Are all free radicals bad?

Free radicals are not all bad.  Our bodies need them to help our immune system fight off microbes (1).  The way they kill bacteria is the same way they can damage our bodies.

The problem arises when we have more free radical than antioxidants, which comes from normal aging.  This unbalance leads to oxidative stress, which ultimately leads to skin damage and an aged appearance.

What damage do free radicals do to our skin?

Free radicals cause a problem not only with our appearance but with our skin health as well (1, 3).

1. Wrinkles

Free radicals attack our collagen and elastin.  Collagen is the structural protein in our skin that keeps it in good form and prevents wrinkling.  Elastin gives our skin elasticity and prevents sagging.

2. Skin cancer

Free radicals from the UV rays of the sun attack our DNA and lead to skin cancer formation.

Where do antioxidants come from?

There are several sources of antioxidants (1).

1. Internal

Our body makes antioxidants, like glutathione, to help protect itself.

2. External

External sources include our diet, as well as our supplements and skincare products.  Diets that are rich in fruits, vegetables, and nuts are the best sources of antioxidants in nature.

Antioxidants and skin care

Antioxidants and skin care

What are the antioxidant benefits for the skin?

There are many benefits of antioxidants (1, 4).

1. Slow down and repair signs of aging

Antioxidants protect the collagen and elastin in our skin so that it does not break down and create wrinkles and sagging skin.

2. Prevent sunburns

Antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties which will protect against sunburns. They can calm and soothe the skin.

3. Help with acne

Since antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties, they can help prevent acne breakouts and blotchy skin. Inflammation can lead to clogged pores, which in turn leads to acne breakouts.  Some are even antimicrobial, which helps kill the bacteria causing acne.

4. Brighten the skin

Some antioxidants can reduce the appearance of brown spots and brighten the skin by stopping sun-induced melanin production. Melanin is what makes the skin darken.

5. Help prevent skin cancer

By protecting the skin’s DNA from free radical damage, they can help slow down the development of skin cancers.

6. Hydration

They are also good at hydrating the skin to keep it plump.

7. Can I stop the aging process?

Unfortunately, we cannot stop the aging process no matter how many antioxidants we consume or use topically.  Aging is a normal genetically determined process (1, 3).

However, premature aging, caused by the environment, can be prevented to some extent with the consumption and use of antioxidants and proper habits.

When should I start using antioxidants in my skincare regimen?

Since the normal programmed aging process begins in our 20’s, that is a good time to start using antioxidants. However, if you have passed your 20’s already, do not worry.  It is never too late to start antioxidants for the face.

Start now. Antioxidants can help at any age.

How do I apply antioxidants?

Put a couple of drops of the antioxidant serum on clean fingers and massage gently into your skin.  You do not need a lot of serum because it spreads easily and contains high concentrations of the ingredients.

Allow 5-10 minutes for it to soak in before applying moisturizer.  If you do not layer products appropriately and wait too short of a period of time for them to absorb, you will not get the full effects of the products and you will waste your money.

When do I apply antioxidants?

You should apply your antioxidant cream or serum after you cleanse your face, but before you apply moisturizer.  You can use it twice a day.  Antioxidants in the morning help your sunscreen work better to protect your skin throughout the day.

When you use it at night, it helps repair the skin from the day’s environmental assaults.  At night, your skin will not be working as hard to combat the UV rays, so it can devote its time to repairing itself.

Here is an example of a skin care regimen:


  1. Cleanser
  2. Toner
  3. Antioxidant serum or cream
  4. Eye cream
  5. Moisturizer
  6. Sunscreen


  1. Cleanser
  2. Toner
  3. Acne treatment or retinoid/retinol or exfoliator*
  4. Antioxidant serum or cream
  5. Eye cream
  6. Night cream/moisturizer

* Exfoliators only need to be used 1-2 times a week

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Antioxidant skincare products

Antioxidants and skin care

What antioxidant skincare products are best for my skin type?

If you have dry or sensitive skin, you may want to use an antioxidant cream that also contains hydrating ingredients.

The best one is ZELEN Life Anti-Aging Night Cream.  It contains retinoids and other antioxidants in a cream form, along with anti-inflammatory and hydrating ingredients.  It does not contain parabens, mineral oil, petrolatum, sulfates, or fragrances, all of which could irritate the skin.

If you have oily to normal skin, you can use a serum antioxidant.  The best one, and a top choice of many dermatologists, is CE Ferulic by Skinceuticals.  It is packed with antioxidants like vitamin C and E and Ferulic acid.  This powerhouse combo is always on the top of the list.

What are the best antioxidants to look for in skincare products?

Many antioxidants are good for your skin.  It is hard to say which is the most powerful antioxidant for the skin, so we will discuss the top 10 best antioxidants for the skin.

1. Vitamin A

Aka retinol, retinoids, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid (1, 6, 7).  This is a powerhouse anti-aging ingredient.  It is not only an antioxidant, but also helps cell turnover (to exfoliate), decreases sebum (oil) production, and helps stimulate collagen production.

It will help minimize fine lines and wrinkles, even out skin tone, improve texture, unclog pores and treat acne.

Some of the best non-prescription ones are Differin Gel, Effaclar Adapalene Gel by La Roche Posay, or RoC RetinolThere are prescription topical antioxidants for acne, such as Retin A and Tazorac.

2. Vitamin C

Aka ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (more stable version) (1, 8, 9). This is one of the most well-known and strongest antioxidants. It also helps stimulate collagen production to diminish fine lines and wrinkles, and even out the tone of the skin by removing brown spots.

Interestingly, it helps stabilize and regenerate vitamin E, another important antioxidant.  That is why they are often seen together in products.

In fact, when Ferulic acid is added to vitamin C and E, Ferulic acid stabilizes them and doubles their photoprotective capabilities.

Two really good ones are CE Ferulic by Skinceuticals or Phloretin by Skinceuticals.

3. Vitamin E

Aka tocopherol, tocotrienols (1, 10-13). This antioxidant is powerful by itself, but even better when combined with vitamin C.  It is not only a potent antioxidant but also helps prevent skin cancers and stabilize the skin’s barrier function to protect the skin from environmental assaults.

The best one is CE Ferulic by Skinceuticals.

4. Vitamin B3

Aka niacinamide, nicotinamide (1, 14). This is so much more than just an antioxidant. It also hydrates the skin, helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles, decreases brown spots, and improves acne and rosacea due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Finally, it also boosts the performance of other antioxidants, such as vitamins A and C.  A great choice is Metacell Renewal B3 by Skinceuticals.

5. Polyphenols from green tea

The key compound is epigallocatechin 3 gallate (EGCG) (1, 15, 16). Not only do these antioxidants prevent collagen breakdown, but they also help prevent skin cancers, help fight inflammation, and help boost the immune system.  Polyphenols can also be found in fruits, vegetables, and chocolate.

Boscia Matcha Magic Super-Antioxidant Mask is a good choice. Or, Dermalogica Multivitamin Power Firm.

6. Resveratrol

These are found naturally in berries, red grapes, and red wine (1, 17, 18). They possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  They protect against UV-induced damage to collagen which leads to fine lines and wrinkles, and also calm and soothe the skin.

They have also been found to be anti-microbial and chemopreventative (cancer-fighting). An excellent choice is Resveratrol by Skinceuticals.

7. Curcumin

This antioxidant is found in turmeric root (1, 19-21). In addition to its antioxidant properties, it also has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, decreases oil production, and accelerates wound healing.  Kiehl’s Turmeric and Cranberry Seed Energizing Radiance Mask is a good selection.

8. Coenzyme Q10

Aka ubiquinone (1, 12). It is produced within our bodies but decreases as we age. It is an important antioxidant that also helps stimulate collagen production to improve wrinkles, texture, and tone of our skin, and helps retain moisture in our skin so we do not dry out.

Eminence makes a good serum – Eminence Organics 8 Greens Youth Serum.

9. Flavenoids from green and black tea

These antioxidants help prevent collagen degradation and wrinkle formation (1, 22, 23). They are also anti-inflammatory and have been used to treat rosacea.  They can also be found in other plants and fruits.

A great choice is Eminence Organics Firm Skin Acai Cream.

10. Glutathione

This is a powerful anti-antioxidant that not only repairs and protects the skin from UV damage, but also helps lighten the skin and remove brown spots caused by the sun (1, 24, 25). PCA Skin C-Quench Antioxidant Serum is a good choice.

There are numerous other lesser-known topical antioxidants.  These are just a few of the many important antioxidants for the skin to mention.

  1. Some are derived from plant oils, such as jojoba oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, and linseed oil (1, 26).
  2. Others are of marine origins, such as blue algae, sea parsley, and brown seaweed (27-29).
  3. All plants contain the ability to protect themselves from photodamage, so they inherently possess antioxidants, such as marigold, edelweiss, lavender, aloe, rose, rosehip, lemongrass, licorice, and birch bark (1, 30-39).
  4. Fruits are an excellent source of antioxidants, such as citrus, acai, pomegranate, blackcurrant, kiwi, lychee, starfruit, guava, and pineapple (38-48).
  5. Bee products, like honey and propolis, also are excellent antioxidants (1).
  6. Finally, some vegetables are also potent antioxidants, like cucumber and artichoke (1, 49).

Do I need to use antioxidants if I already use sunscreen?

Do I need to use antioxidants if I already use sunscreen?

Sunscreens work best when used with antioxidants (3).  They complement each other well.  In fact, antioxidants make sunscreen work better.

Oftentimes, antioxidants are added to sunscreens to make it easier on the consumer. La Roche Posay Anthelios Melt In Sunscreen Milk SPF 60 contains the antioxidants tocopherol (vitamin E) and Senna alata.  It is an excellent broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks UVA and UVB rays.  It always ranks at the top of the list from Consumer Reports.

There are 2 types of sunscreens: chemical and physical.  Chemical sunscreens, such as avobenzone or oxtinoxate, absorb the UV rays and get rid of them as harmless heat.  La Roche Posay Anthelios Melt In Sunscreen Milk SPF 60 is a chemical sunscreen.

Physical blockers, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, repel the rays and do not let them enter the skin.  La Roche Posay Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50 is an excellent physical blocking sunscreen.

Sunscreens only work if they are used properly.

  1. You must consistently apply them every day, whether it is rainy or cloudy.
  2. If you are using a chemical sunscreen, you need to apply it 30 minutes before sun exposure. If it is a physical sunscreen then do not have to wait.  You can apply it immediately before sun exposure.
  3. You need to use about a nickel to quarter size to cover your face and about 1-1 1/2 ounces to cover your body, depending on your size.
  4. Sunscreens only last about 1-2 hours, so you must reapply throughout the day. This is critical.
  5. You must have sunscreen on when you are driving in the car or sitting near a window because the harmful rays go through glass.
  6. Use sunscreen that is broad-spectrum coverage and will protect you against UVA and UVB rays because both can harm your skin.

Supporting skin care: Other great sources of antioxidants

Other great sources of antioxidants

What habits will keep me healthy?

To keep your body from aging prematurely, here are some good habits to start.

1. Proper nutrition

Stick to a diet rich in antioxidant foods such as fruits and vegetables. These are excellent sources of antioxidants. These support good health.

They are important in keeping your gut microbiome healthy so you can properly absorb vitamins and minerals.  Limit processed foods, refined sugars, carbs, caffeine, alcohol, and smoking.  These damages our bodies and skin.

2. Get enough sleep

If you do not get enough sleep, the cells in your body and skin do not have the time they need to repair themselves. Your skin does not have time during the day to repair itself since it is constantly fighting off free radicals from the environment.  Around 8 hours is optimal.  Without the proper amount of sleep, your skin becomes dull and drab.

3. Hydration

Make sure you drink enough water to keep your body hydrated so it can flush out toxins that damage our skin and bodies. Approximately 8 – 8oz glasses of water per day, depending on your size, is ideal.  Hydration leads to increased blood flow, which evens out the tone and texture of your skin keeping you glowing.

4. Exercise

Daily exercise is important to keep your immune system functioning properly and slow down the aging process. It does not have to be vigorous activity every day for long periods of time.  Just 20-30 minutes of mild-moderate exercise is sufficient.

5. Supplements

Many supplements are beneficial to your body. Vitamin D and calcium help strengthen your bones,  vitamin C boosts your immune system, vitamin A helps your vision, and fish oil helps your heart.

Always consult with a doctor before combining supplements with prescription medications.

It is possible to have too much of a good thing. You can take too many antioxidants and cause harm to your bodies. For example, high doses of beta carotene can increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers.  High doses of vitamin E may increase your risk of prostate cancer and stroke.


Free radicals, while necessary in certain circumstances, if allowed to go unchecked, can destroy our skin.

Antioxidants keep these free radicals from destroying our skin, but unfortunately, as we age, we do not produce as many of them.  That is why the application of topical antioxidants is so important to keeping our skin looking young and healthy.

Food sources of antioxidants help keep our bodies protected and functioning properly too.  Some topical antioxidants also possess other helpful qualities, such as lightening the dark spots on our skin, soothing our skin, or fighting acne.

When combined with the proper use of sunscreens these antioxidants are powerhouses of protection for our skin, which will keep us looking younger.

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About The Author


Board-Certified Dermatologist

BS-MD (University of Miami)

United States

Dr. Trent completed a 6 year combined BS-MD at the University of Miami with an undergraduate major in biology and a minor in chemistry. She completed her internship in Internal Medicine and her residency in Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital. Dr. Trent is a world recognized dermatologist, who has published over 40 articles in peer-reviewed journals. She also co-authored a textbook on dermatologic diseases and therapy, which was published by McGraw-Hill Co, Inc. She has had the opportunity to present her clinical research several times at national medical meetings. Dr. Trent has been the recipient of several awards for research, teaching and clinical practice, including the prestigious Young Investigators award for research from the American Academy of Dermatology as well as the coveted Castle Connelly Top Doctor award.

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