Antioxidants. Are. Everywhere. My skincare. My hair gel. My shave lotion. Even my water boasts about its antioxidant content!
As ubiquitous as they seem to be these days, there are still lots of people who don’t understand what their function is or what the best way is to incorporate them into their daily lives.
Should you smear them on your skin? Should you take supplements? Should you do both? Today, I’m going to answer all of these questions.
But First: Antioxidant 101
Before we dive into what the best ways are to get your daily dose of antioxidants, I’m going to briefly explain why you should care about them at all.
The name actually says it all: anti-oxidant. These guys help to prevent a process called oxidation, which is caused by free radicals. The term “free radicals” is always thrown around like the supervillain of a movie, but almost nobody explains what they are.
Free radicals are basically like the unpredictable drunk guy at the bar (remember bars? Ah, the good ol’ days). They’re unstable, bouncing around, looking for anyone to cling to, and they’re knocking stuff over, spilling drinks, and causing mayhem while they do it.
Typically, free radicals will react with your healthy cells and cause damage. Have you ever watched an apple slice turn brown? That’s the same process.
Okay, back to the bar analogy. You can think of antioxidants as the sober friend who willingly corrals the drunk friend away from everyone else and keeps him contained so that he doesn’t cause any more chaos.
Antioxidants scavenge around for free radicals and bind to them so that they don’t react with (and damage) the healthy cells in your body.
Now let’s talk about how to add them to your beauty regimen.
Antioxidants: Eat or Apply?
A few of the most popular antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, retinol (vitamin A), coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and polyphenols. There are dozens (or even hundreds!) of others like glutathione, green tea, resveratrol … the list is seemingly endless. I’m going to focus on the heavy hitters today though.
Vitamin C is one of the most popular and powerful antioxidants. Not only does it scavenge free radicals, but it also boosts photoprotection, increases collagen production, and helps with wound healing.
Data is mixed when it comes to deciding whether ingesting or applying vitamin C is best. In general, studies seem to find that topical applications of a mixture of vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc perform better than any of those antioxidants can do on their own.
One study did find that a combination supplement of vitamins C and E gave people a small boost in photoprotection, which didn’t happen when each was used alone.
The Verdict: Focus on topical application, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a low-dose C+E supplement too. Be sure to ask your doctor what dosage would be best for you.
Vitamin E occurs naturally in our bodies and is typically secreted in our sebum. Because it is a fat-soluble vitamin, it’s important to talk to your doctor about how much vitamin E would be beneficial for you to take. Fat-soluble vitamins can build up in your tissues if you ingest high levels over time, and too much of a good thing can be harmful!
If you take a supplement, it takes at least a week for the supplements to make any difference in the vitamin E content of your sebum, so it’s important to remember that this would be an instance of “slow and steady.”
If you apply vitamin E topically, it’s great as an anti-inflammatory, and it can provide small moisturization benefits.
The Verdict: Overall, if you’re going to use vitamin E, the limited research available seems to say that it’s best to apply it topically. I think it would be best to just go for the vitamin C + E combo so that you’re getting the best of both.
Vitamin A (Retinol)
Retinol is always held up as the gold standard of anti-aging. Retinoids (retinol and all of its derivatives) have a long, well-researched history for treating acne, hyperpigmentation, and visible signs of aging with topical application.
The other form of vitamin A is beta-carotene, which comes from fruits and veggies (like carrots). Beta-carotene is tricky though because it takes a LOT of work for your body to convert it into usable retinol.
When I started researching this, I fully expected to read that ingesting retinol wasn’t really a thing, but I was wrong! I knew that medications like Accutane contain retinoids, but I didn’t expect there to be much benefit to nutriceuticals or OTC vitamin A supplements. It turns out that low doses of ingestible retinol (like Dirty Lemon’s +retinol drink) can help make your skin plumper and smoother.
The major caveat to vitamin A supplementation is that you MUST talk to your doctor about it! Vitamin A toxicity is very real. If you aren’t getting enough vitamin A in your diet, your doctor can tell you if a supplement is necessary and if it’s safe for you to take.
The Verdict: Unless you’re deficient in vitamin A, you’ll get the most benefit from topical retinoid application. I think there are too many risks and variables to taking vitamin A supplements that it’s probably not worth it for most of us!
Other Antioxidants: Eat or Apply?
There are hundreds of antioxidant compounds, so we can’t go over all of them here. I tried to pick the biggest names, but tons of others are present in skincare and antioxidant-blend supplements.
The best way to get antioxidants is through a healthy, colorful diet. Other than that, topical application of antioxidants seems to be the best way to go. In general, singling out certain antioxidants and trying to take supplement versions of them is less effective than eating the foods they come from or applying them topically with other ingredients.
This is because most antioxidants work better when they’re present with other minerals, antioxidants, and nutrients. There’s also a lot of risk of overdoing it if you take oral antioxidant supplements, which can cause a whole separate set of problems!
Drink your retinol water if you want, and eat a diet that’s as varied as possible to get the most internal antioxidant benefit. Aside from that, just add some topical antioxidants to your beauty routine, and call it a day!
How do you get your antioxidants—by eating them or applying them? Let’s talk about it in the comments!