, The Best Antioxidants for Skin and How to Use Them

The Best Antioxidants for Skin and How to Use Them

, The Best Antioxidants for Skin and How to Use Them

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Are there any disadvantages to using antioxidants?

All of the experts SELF spoke with agree that there really aren’t many. Some antioxidants may be a bit more likely to cause irritation (itching, burning, redness in some skin tones) than others. However, as a class, they’re certainly not notorious for uncomfortable side effects such as peeling and dryness, as is the case with potent ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid, Dr. Skotnicki points out.

The biggest potential pitfall is that an antioxidant skin care product may not be as effective as it claims to be. Finding one that works, remains stable (i.e., the antioxidants stay active and effective), and can actually penetrate deep enough to do its thing isn’t always easy, she notes. The overall formulation of the product, as well as the type and concentration of the antioxidants, will dictate its efficacy, adds Dr. Gmyrek.2 To that point…

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The best antioxidants to add to your skin care routine

Broadly speaking, any antioxidant is better than no antioxidant, but there are some standouts that are worth seeking out, as well as some that may be better suited for certain skin types.

Vitamin C

This was a universally recommended top pick among all of the experts SELF consulted. Dr. Skotnicki notes that there is plenty of clinical data to back its efficacy, which isn’t the case for many other antioxidants on the market. What makes vitamin C so unique? Along with fighting hard against free-radical damage, it also addresses hyperpigmentation and helps with collagen production (meaning it can smooth fine lines and wrinkles), she says.3

A few caveats: The majority of clinical studies on topical vitamin C are based on l-ascorbic acid, the most potent and pure version, which can be a bit irritating, particularly for those with more sensitive skin, Dr. Skotnicki points out. L-ascorbic acid is also water-soluble, meaning it dissolves in water; this poses an issue since skin cells are hydrophobic (they repel water), adds Dr. Russak. “As such, it needs to be formulated in an oilier base, which those with acne-prone skin may not like,” she says.

While l-ascorbic acid is considered the gold standard, there are other forms of vitamin C worth considering. Both Dr. Gmyrek and Dr. Russak call out textrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THD), as it’s both highly stable and tends to be better tolerated in those with sensitive skin. Other gentler forms include magnesium ascorbyl phosphate and ascorbyl palmitate; it may be worth seeking out one of these alternate versions if your skin is easily irritated. (Here’s more guidance on exactly how to use vitamin C in your skin care routine.)


You can also consider niacinamide, or vitamin B3, if you’re concerned about irritation. “While it’s not as strong as vitamin C, it’s very well-tolerated and anti-inflammatory, so it’s great if you have sensitive skin or even rosacea or eczema,” Dr. Russak explains. On top of that, it can help improve skin barrier function, regulate oil production, and reduce redness and hyperpigmentation, says Dr. Gmyrek.3 Niacinamide is available in both over-the-counter and prescription versions, and we’ve got a bunch of advice on how to use it and what to look for. (FYI, it’s typically been studied in 2% to 10% concentrations; 5% is a good middle ground to look for, as SELF previously reported. If the percentage isn’t listed, niacinamide should be one of the first few ingredients on the label.)

Vitamin E

“Vitamin E, or tocopherol, is known for its hydrating properties and can be beneficial for dry or sensitive skin types, as it’s also very soothing,” says Dr. Gmyrek. That’s because it not only helps in the wound healing process and repairs damage, but it can also enhance the skin’s natural moisture barrier and reduce inflammation, she adds.4 Like ferulic acid, the next top-notch antioxidant on our list, you probably won’t see vitamin E as a standalone skin care hero. Rather, it’s often paired with vitamin C (the two work synergistically, and vitamin E can actually help combat the irritating effects of l-ascorbic acid), as well as other antioxidants, since it plays nicely with most, according to the derms we spoke to.

Ferulic acid

As mentioned above, you’ll typically see ferulic acid combined with vitamin C (and/or vitamin E) in serums and other skin care products. That’s because it can help create a more acidic environment that stabilizes the vitamin C, ensuring it stays potent and active for longer, Dr. Skotnicki says. It works harmoniously with other antioxidants, including vitamin E, as well, adds Dr. Gmyrek, although it’s still powerful in its own right.4 FYI: Look for “ferulic acid” listed on the ingredients label.


This is an umbrella term for a variety of plant-based antioxidants. “It makes sense that plants are rich in antioxidants, given that they’ve had to protect themselves from the sun for billions of years,” says Dr. Skotnicki. Polyphenols are generally good for all skin types, and you’re likely to find them in organic products, or those that market themselves as “natural,” Dr. Russak notes. Common ones worth seeking out include: green- and white-tea extract (you’ll typically see the former listed as EGCG on ingredient labels), lycopene (found in red and pink fruits such as watermelon), pomegranate extract, and sea buckthorn.

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