The Truth About Antioxidants

People often equate antioxidants with  anti-aging. Just about every advertisement for a skincare cream claims that its antioxidant ingredients turn back the hands of time and that they’re a panacea to wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots. But what are they exactly? Produced by the body and also found in vitamins, enzymes, and botanicals, antioxidants are best known for fighting free radicals, the unstable molecules that cause damage to healthy cells and genetic material, over time accelerating the signs of aging and contributing to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. 

Yet as antioxidants have increasingly pervaded our culture, they have also produced myths. Is the antioxidant fountain of youth too good to be true? Yes and no. The subject of recent scrutiny, a number of studies have shown that taking high doses of antioxidant supplements have produced the opposite effect of their purported benefits: they increase the risks of cancer. And according to a report published by the Harvard School of Public Health, clinical trials on antioxidants and disease prevention have had mixed results, though that hasn’t stopped product companies from beefing up marketing claims and banking on the hype, while others distort data.   

As far as the beauty industry goes, “antioxidants are good for the skin,” says Ariel Ostad, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist. But, he cautions, not all are created equal. “Different antioxidants excel at fighting certain types of free radicals, while others are effective in only specific parts of the cell. Still others can only battle free radicals under the right conditions. Your body needs a variety of antioxidants to stay healthy.” Another misconception is that these free-radical fighters are quick fixes for mature skin. “Antioxidants will not ‘cure’ wrinkles or aging skin overnight. There is no one antioxidant that is going to stop aging,” says Marina Peredo, M.D., founder of Spatique Medical Spa (Smithtown, NY). Instead, she notes, “They prevent future damage to skin.”

But, just because a cream contains antioxidants doesn’t mean that it carries their beneficial properties. Products are often tested for safety but not for effectiveness and for the best results, antioxidants need to be present in sufficient concentrations of their purest and most stable form. In this regard, stem cell technology, which is used to obtain plant extracts (a source of antioxidants), has made great strides. According to Doris Day, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center, most antioxidants included in skincare products come from specimens grown outdoors, which may contain contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals, and fungal toxins. In addition, due to the variation of soil conditions, weather, and the use of fertilizers, plant materials contain inconsistent concentrations of antioxidants. This new technology, says Day, tackles both of these issues, resulting in purer, more potent ingredients.

According to Ostad the quality of an antioxidant-rich skincare product also depends on proper absorption vehicles. “You can have a list of amazing ingredients, but if there is no delivery system, they are not going to be effective,” he says. “About 98 percent of ingredients are wasted without an effective absorption strategy.” Among the best absorption systems? “Phosphatidylcholine liposomes, which increase penetration up to 1,000 percent, and coenzyme Q10, which stabilizes the product.”

Ostad also points out that the most powerful age-defying products combine a variety of antioxidants. “Antioxidants work as a team and not in isolation,” he says. For example, explains Patricia K. Farris, M.D., clinical associate professor at Tulane, a combination of vitamins C and E were found to be a better photoprotector than vitamin C alone. “Also, vitamins  C and E and ferulic acid were tested together and had added protective effects,” she says.

Though cosmeceutical companies are always on the lookout for the best antioxidant ingredients, the most popular ones on the market are berry extracts (blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries), which contain powerful anti-inflammatory anthocyanins, and soy, a rich source of isoflavones, which function as phytoestrogens, known to increase skin thickness and promote collagen production. Studies have also proven that niacin (vitamin B3) has yielded many skincare benefits, according to Ostad. “It has anti-inflammatory properties, helps to keep pores open, and protects the skin from UV damage caused by the sun,” he says. “It has been shown to reduce water loss in the skin and retain fatty acid levels for younger, plumper, firmer skin.” Other major players? “Vitamin C is key to the production of collagen, and vitamin A keeps the skin and mucous membrane cells healthy.” Meanwhile, Farris’s favorite antioxidant comes from the sea: astaxathin, or algae, which has been making its way into topical skincare. Whatever the ingredient du jour, antioxidants may not be able to rewind the hands of time completely, but they are certainly making headway.