I’m going to take a guess and say that you don’t really know what antioxidants are. (Hey, no judgement—the beauty world is a confusing, jargon-filled place.) Sure, you know that they’re good for you (maybe?), and that they’re in all of your skincare products (probably?), but do you know why you’re slathering them on your face?
Well, here’s the gist: Antioxidants are naturally occurring vitamins and minerals—like vitamins A, C, E, and green tea—that protect your skin against free radicals. And yes, free radicals sound like a bad ‘70s rock band, but they’re actually molecules in the environment that damage your skin by clinging to your collagen and weakening elasticity. “They come from things like air pollutants, chemicals, and cigarette smoke, and they basically suck the life out of your face,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor at Yale University.
Antioxidants neutralize those free radicals to protect your skin from damage. Great, right? But that’s not all: Some antioxidants also brighten your skin, calm irritation, and even smooth fine lines—as long as you choose the right ones. Which is where I come in.
Best for: Soothing
Surprise—green tea is both kickass in your mug and on your face. “Green tea is filled with polyphenols that not only scavenge free radicals, but also work as an anti-inflammatory to accelerate wound healing,” says dermatologist Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, clinical attending at NYU Langone and Mount Sinai Hospital, making it a top pick for anyone with rosacea, psoriasis, sensitive skin, and even acne.
But that doesn’t mean you can slap some tea bags over your face and call it a day—the amount of antioxidant concentration will likely be too low to be effective. Instead, grab a serum or moisturizer high in green tea—often listed as camellia sinensis leaf extract on ingredients lists—and slather that on, instead.
Best for: Brightening
Vitamin C (i.e. L-ascorbic acid, as you might see on some products) is pretty much the ultimate antioxidant for perking up dull, blah, tired-looking skin. Just like green tea, it can calm and hydrate your skin, and similar to retinol, it boosts your collagen production to tighten fine lines and smooth uneven skin.
But where it really shines is in its brightening powers: Over the course of 6-8 weeks (to first see results), vitamin C will lighten hyperpigmentation and dark spots and brighten your overall complexion for a fresher, just-slept-20-hours face.
Best for: Anti-Aging
Fun fact: Vitamin A is actually the same thing as retinol—or, rather, retinol is just concentrated vitamin A. And in case you’re still fuzzy on why everyone is obsessed with it, here’s the Sparknotes version: Retinol smooths fine lines, fills in wrinkles, softens bumps and rough patches, brightens skin, fades scars and dark marks, and drastically reduces acne (even hormonal cystic acne).
Of course, something that potent does come with side effects, namely a few weeks of “purging” when you first start using it that can cause breakouts, dryness, and flakes. But you’ve gotta stick with it to see results (which will first be noticeable after 3-6 months). Apply it once night a week for one week, twice a week for two weeks, three times a week for three weeks, and then every other day for, uh, the rest of your life. Hey, good skin is a lifelong commitment, folks.
Note: Since you only use retinol at night, you can double it up with other antioxidants in the morning, but avoid using vitamin C along with retinol if you have sensitive, reactive skin, since the combination—even hours apart—can irritate your skin.
Best for: Moisturizing
Alright, technically, vitamin E (a.k.a. tocopherol) is the best for everything and everyone. It’s the popular kid of antioxidants, because it does a little bit of everything, without being too intense. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory, a strong shield against free radicals and premature aging, and a pro at keeping skin soft and supple, which is key for preventing scar formation.
Though it’s totally fine—and very gentle–on its own in products, it’s even more powerful against free radicals when combined with vitamin C (which is why you’ll see so many vitamin C + E products). As long as your skin isn’t too sensitive, try doubling up your products in the morning, layering on a moisturizer over a serum, or an oil over a moisturizer.