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Antioxidants: what are they and which are best for your skin?

January 1 | 6 minute read

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Words by Sarah Tarca

Originally published on | June 1

Ever looked at your moisturiser's (or serum's, or toner's) ingredient list and felt engulfed in a wave of confusion?

MECCApedia is here to decode the science, unravel the jargon and give you the knowledge to understand the actives you're slathering on morning and night. Let your skincare education commence!

Find us a category of ingredients more universally loved than antioxidants… we’ll wait. There’s not a formulator, scientist, dermatologist or regular human that doesn’t want them in their skincare (or, incidentally, in their diet). That’s because not only do they perform multiple functions in the skin’s appearance (calming, revitalising and protecting), they also work in all different products (serums, cleansers, moisturisers and even haircare). Plus, there are so many different antioxidant ingredients to choose from, you’re guaranteed to find one that works for your specific skin type and concerns. Read the back of any of your skincare favourites and you’re likely to find at least one antioxidant in the ingredients list!

There’s no question as to whether you need antioxidants – if you want healthy looking skin, the answer is a firm yes. It’s more a question of which one to choose. Here, we break down some of the most popular skincare antioxidants: vitamin C, retinol, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, vitamin E, resveratrol, polyphenols, coenzyme Q10 and green tea, so you can find your perfect match.

What are antioxidants in skincare?

Let’s backtrack a little to explain a bit more about why our skin needs antioxidants – and this begins with a skincare science lesson. See, one of the key factors in accelerated ageing (both for your skin and body) is something called free radicals. Don’t be fooled by the cute name, these guys are not the types you want to party with.

To get technical for a second, free radicals are unpaired, unstable electrons that try to bind to other molecules in order to stabilise themselves – but in doing so, they weaken the skin, leading to the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and uneven skin tone. This is where antioxidants step in. It’s their job to protect from free radical damage, oxidative stress and damage caused by environmental aggressors (like UV and pollution).

How do antioxidants work?

Antioxidants are able to protect from free radical damage in a really unique way by neutralising free radicals. They do this by allowing the unpaired electron of the free radical to pair with their own stable one, so that free radicals stop searching for other molecules (and leaving a path of destruction in their wake). They essentially give up their own electron for the greater good.
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What are the benefits of antioxidants?

Do you like healthy-looking skin? Want to plump out the appearance of fine lines and texture, or achieve more clarity and glow? Antioxidants have the ability to deliver all of that, and more. Their list of benefits is long and reads like a roll call of everything you want your skin to be. As a bonus, multiple antioxidants can be used in the same formulation, which turbocharges your free radical damage protection on the skin and means you can address multiple other concerns at the same time. For instance, dryness and dullness can be addressed by a combination of vitamins C and E (which is why you often see these paired together).

Are there different types of antioxidants?

There are different types of antioxidants and each can do different things for your skin. Let’s break down the most popular ones you’ll find in your bathroom cabinet so you can start getting the most out of your antioxidants.

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is best known for its humectant qualities – that is, its ability to draw in and retain water – and rightly so, since it can hold 1000 times its weight in water. However, it’s also excellent at protecting against free radical damage because it just so happens to be an antioxidant, too. So, in addition to plumping the skin (which diminishes the look of fine lines) it can lock in moisture and protect against environmental aggressors.

Vitamin C

Unless you’ve been sleeping on skincare for the last 10 years, you should be very familiar with vitamin C and its (many) benefits. Often listed as ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid, it can help with the look of texture, fine lines, brightness, uneven skin tone and building skin resilience.

Vitamin E

One of the original and best-researched antioxidants, vitamin E (aka, tocopherol) is the queen of moisturising and soothing. This makes it great for those with sensitive skin.


Otherwise known at vitamin A, retinol’s primary badge of honour is that it’s the gold standard ingredient to turn to if the appearance of ageing is your skincare woe – but it’s also an incredible antioxidant. Retinol addresses many concerns on the look and feel of your skin like fine lines, wrinkles, rough skin texture and enlarged pores (just to name a few). So, essentially, retinol is a huge overachiever in the skincare world.


Resveratrol is a potent, plant-based antioxidant found in fruits like blueberries, cranberries and red grapes (and, incidentally, red wine as well). It’s great for brightening and calming the skin’s appearance and, of course, fighting free radicals.


Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, has quickly become a crowd (and dermatologist) favourite thanks to its multitasking abilities. There is little niacinamide can’t do: it brightens the appearance of skin tone, strengthens the skin barrier, and softens the look of wrinkles. It’s also notoriously gentle, making it ideal for those with sensitive skin that can’t tolerate ingredients like retinol.


Another plant-based antioxidant, polyphenols are actually a group of organic compounds found in abundance in fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, teas and even dark chocolate. They have a soothing effect on the skin so are great to turn to if your skin is irritated.

Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 may be a bit of a tongue twister, but it’s a pretty important antioxidant. So much so, it’s a naturally occurring enzyme (also called ubiquinone) that is present in all of our cells. Consider this one essential for skin rejuvenation.

Green tea

Packed with polyphenols (you can read about them above), the key compound in green tea has been found to have a bunch of anti-ageing benefits, as well as an ability to sooth the appearance of uneven skin tone, and calm and protect skin. You might see it listed on your product as camellia sinensis leaf extract.

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Which antioxidants should you use?

When it comes to which antioxidants you should choose, the answer is entirely dependent on your skin type, concerns and tolerance levels. Are you most concerned by dullness? Do you want something to help with the appearance of fine lines? Is your skin super sensitive?

Look first at the skin issues you want to address, as all antioxidants fight against free radicals and oxidative stress, but you can tailor your choices to support your skin in other ways too. And don’t forget the fact that lots of antioxidants play well together, so many formulations will include more than one to up the efficacy even more – which is great news for you (and your wallet)!

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How to use antioxidants in your skincare routine

Now for some more good news: antioxidants can be found and formulated in pretty much all types of skincare. Some – like vitamin C and retinol – will work better in serums, while others – like resveratrol and green tea – will work well in eye creams and moisturisers, thanks to their calming abilities.
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How to choose antioxidants for your skin type

So, how to choose? It’s simple, really: just identify your main concern and go from there. Here’s a helpful key…

If your skin needs:

Moisture: Look to hyaluronic acid and vitamin E.

Calming, soothing, anti-redness: Green tea, niacinamide, resveratrol and polyphenols are your best friends here.

Brightening: Vitamin C and niacinamide are the MVPs for the appearance of brightness.

Smoothing: Retinol does a great job at treating texture – an area vitamin C can also help with.

Anti-ageing: Again, you can’t beat retinol as an anti-ageing all-rounder… but niacinamide is another one that can help with the appearance of fine lines, as can hyaluronic acid.

Can I use antioxidants on my body?

Not only can you use antioxidants on your body – you can ingest them too! Many are plant-based and found in ‘superfoods’ (think: blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, teas, dark chocolate, spices and herbs). Topically, you’ll find antioxidants in a bunch of body products. Body serums and creams with green tea, polyphenols and vitamin E are the most popular, but you’ll also see retinol making an appearance in some treatments. Again, the same rules apply as with your face: identify the concern you’re trying to target, then choose your antioxidant accordingly. And now that you’ve read this, the choice should be easy!

Related topics and brand tags

Skin careCleanserHair careSerumMoisturiser

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