Antioxidant Skincare Ingredient Dictionary

image of different antioxidant ingredients found in skin care like vitamin C

This is a dictionary of antioxidant ingredients in skincare.  There is a glossary with a list of antioxidant ingredients at the end. 

But- before we discuss specific antioxidants used in skincare to treat acne, rosacea, melasma and skin aging, lets first learn about how antioxidants work.

What Are Antioxidants and What Benefits Do They Have for Skin?

Antioxidants protect against the ravages of free radicals by reducing and neutralizing them. Oral supplements, vitamins, and topical antioxidant serums and creams can be used to help the skin protect itself from free radicals. Antioxidants protect skin from inflammation, pigmentation and aging.

What are Free Radicals?


What Natural Antioxidants Are In The Skin?

Antioxidants that naturally occur in the skin include superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase, α-tocopherol (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), glutathione, and ubiquinone. [1] Sebum produced by the sebaceous glands on the face has antioxidants such as Vitamin E in it that can help protect your skin.  But did you know- the lips do not have sebaceous glands and therefore have less antioxidant protection than the rest of the face.  This is one reason that skin cancer is more common on the lips.

Polyphenols for Skin

Polyphenols are naturally occurring antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, and plants.  They have a strong antioxidant capacity.  Polyphenols are antioxidants but not all antioxidants are polyphenols.

Why Do We Need Extra Antioxidants for Skin?

As we age, we produce fewer natural antioxidants and the damage that we get from our environment adds up.[2] The body’s natural antioxidants are used up by exposure to UV light, visible light, pollution, toxins, and normal metabolism.  Oral and topical antioxidants can be used to increase the amount of antioxidants on the skin help the skin protect itself from free radicals.

What Do Antioxidants Do For Skin?

Although antioxidants occur naturally in the human body and are in foods and drinks, higher levels can be achieved by topical serums, antioxidant creams and oral supplementation. Antioxidants may help prevent skin aging by protecting skin from the damage caused by free radicals.  Antioxidants may prevent wrinkles, but antioxidants do not erase wrinkles that are already present.



How to Find the Most Powerful Antioxidants for Skin?

There are several important factors to consider when looking for the best antioxidants for skin:

  • Oral antioxidants (food, drink, or supplements) must be absorbed in the stomach, move to the blood stream and make it to the skin. Most do not.
  • Topical antioxidants must be absorbed into the deep layers of skin and remain there long enough to target free radicals
  • Many antioxidants are very unstable and become oxidized and inactive before reaching the target. Heat, light, air and other skincare ingredients can make antioxidants ineffective.
  • Skincare products with antioxidants must be formulated, manufactured, and packaged to minimize air and light exposure- this is challenging and expensive.


Which Antioxidants Are the Best and Most Powerful for the Skin?

Antioxidants work synergistically to enhance the power” of each other. You need as many forms of antioxidants as possible because one type of antioxidant is not enough.

After an antioxidant “disarms” a free radical by giving it an even number of electrons, the antioxidant is unable to function further unless it is recycled. Antioxidants recycle each other.  For this reason, you should get as many antioxidants in foods, supplements, beverages, and topical cosmeceutical skincare products as possible.  More is better!

Is Retinol An Antioxidant?

No- retinol is a retinoid. Retinoids are in the Vitamin A family.  Retinoids are great for skin but retinoids like retinol are not antioxidants.

Click here to learn how retinol and retinoids treat aging skin.


What Antioxidants are in Cosmeceutical Skincare Products?

There are 2 main types of antioxidants: Fat soluble and water soluble.  The fat-soluble antioxidants are usually found in creams and oils.  They protect the lipid-filled cell membranes. Fat soluble antioxidants include include Vitamin E (tocopherol), Carotenoids, Coenzyme Q10, idebenone, and lycopene.

Water soluble antioxidants are usually formulated in toners or serums.  They protect the hydrophilic section inside the skin cells. Water soluble antioxidants found in cosmeceuticals include ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), Green tea, silymarin and glutathione. Alpha lipoic acid is unusual in that it is both fat soluble and water soluble.


(Coming soon!) Click on the antioxidant glossary below to learn more about each antioxidant ingredient.


Alpha-Lipoic Acid

Coenzyme Q10 (Ubiquinone)

Coffea Arabica

Coffeeberry Extract




Grape Seed Extract

Green Tea




Polypodium Leucotomos





Vitamin C

Vitamin E




[1] Shindo Y, Witt E, Han D et al: Enzymic and non-enzymic antioxidants in epidermis and dermis of human skin. J Invest Dermatol. 102:122, 1994.


[2] Baumann L. Ch. 39 Antioxidants in Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology (McGraw Hill 2022).

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