It’s official: the country has gone antioxidant crazy. All it takes is one trip to any grocery, health or drug store to see just how much they’ve infiltrated food and product shelves—the siren stamp of approval gleaming from plenty of shiny packages. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “antioxidant supplements represent a $500 million industry that continues to grow.” No kidding.Thanks to the ubiquity of Dr. Nicholas Perricone’s salmon diet, most of us are down with scarfing this omega-3 fatty acid fish along with blueberries, and coenzyme Q-10 supplements. But lately, body washes, shampoos, and yes folks, even some toothpastes now boast antioxidant enhancement. And while there’s no question that plenty of beauty companies are loving this shiny new marketing term, the question remains: Are antioxidants bona fide or bogus?“Antioxidants help protect the skin when ingested and when directly applied to the skin,” says New York City dermatologist Dr. Amy Wechsler, YouBeauty’s Dermatology Advisor. “They help skin regenerate and appear more youthful.”MORE: Antixodants Are Brain FoodNot to bore you to tears, but here’s how it all works, more or less: Free radicals (linked to baddies like sun exposure and cigarette smoking, among other factors) are molecules that contain unpaired electrons. In their quest to pair up with other electrons, they can cause neighboring molecules to break up faster than Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. Scientists say that DNA, fat and protein molecular damage can lead to cancer and yes, wrinkles and aging. The basic theory is that antioxidants may mitigate this process by donating electrons to neutralize the free radical. Got it? Science class dismissed.But while any doctor will tell you that eating more antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables is beneficial, is there really any point in slathering them all over our skin as well?“You’re right to be skeptical,” says YouBeauty cosmetic chemistry expert Ni’Kita Wilson, who also notes that plenty of products may contain negligible amounts of antioxidants yet still boast their presence on the packaging. “Many antioxidants are effective when ingested, but just because it works inside the body doesn’t mean that it will work the same on the outside.” Still, Wilson points to scientific evidence that when certain antioxidants were applied to skin and later exposed to UV rays, the side with the antioxidant displayed less redness. “That proves that they do have a positive effect on the skin,” she asserts.
Some of the most well-known research behind topical antioxidants comes from Dr. Sheldon Pinnell, a dermatologist who also happens to be the founder of the skincare line, SkinCeuticals. Pinnell has participated in several studies that have explored and found topical benefits to using a range of antioxidants including zinc and vitamin E. A 2011 profile in The International Journal of Aesthetic and Anti-Ageing Medicine laid out Pinnell’s three criteria for an efficacious antioxidant product. According to Pinnell, for an antioxidant product to really work it would have to contain: pure active forms of vitamins C and E (L-Ascorbic acid and alpha-tocopherol); be formulated at a low pH; and be present in high concentrations (approximately 10-15 percent). Not incidentally, these criteria are met in SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic and Phloretin CF serums. And while SkinCeuticals certainly isn’t the only brand peddling these wares, the percentages do bring up a good point—how much is necessary to make a difference on skin and would you know by reading labels alone?MORE: Fight Infrared Radiation With Antioxidants“It takes a high concentration, as much as 90 percent polyphenols (chemicals with antioxidant properties) to have an effect, and so far only some of the more expensive companies specifically detail their antioxidant levels on the label,” says Wechsler.And Wilson backs her up noting that a good rule of thumb is if the product doesn’t bother to mention the amount, chances are there’s nothing to boast about. (She also points out that some antioxidants are even used as preservatives and have no skin benefits whatsoever.) On the other hand, she doesn’t think there’s any hard and fast rule regarding how much of a particular antioxidant is necessary to make a difference because the effects are cumulative. “The efficacy depends on the quality of the product,” she says, admitting that it’s confusing for consumers. “It’s pretty standard for it to take a twice daily application for at least a month before seeing any discernable difference.”That said, when it comes to perusing the overwhelming options on cosmetic shelves, Wilson is most encouraged by the clinicals behind these antioxidant ingredients: coffee berry, resveratrol, tocotrienol and tocopherol (both part of the vitamin E family) and ECGC, a potent green tea extract. And Wechsler advises using them in serum form choose serums because “they’re billed as supercharged antioxidant delivery systems” that have time to absorb into skin as opposed to cleansers, which you’re immediately rinsing down the drain.Another easy way to mix some antioxidant love into your daily routine is by layering one under your sunscreen for a one-two punch against damaging rays. Check out Neocutis Journée, a day cream that combines green tea, vitamins C and E with SPF 30. (Full disclosure: Wilson was the product development genius behind it.)QUIZ: Just How Old Does Your Skin Look?Which brings us to the question: Which specific antioxidant products do skincare experts like Wilson and Wechsler trust their skin to anyway? (Those in the know generally agree that while the jury may still be out on antioxidants, it still doesn’t hurt to use them.) As a cosmetic chemist, Wilson has the skills and access to whip up her own blend of green tea and vitamin C (jealous!?), but she also loves Sophyto Super Skin Concentrate because it contains high levels of the aforementioned tocotrienol that’s “mind-blowing for skin regeneration even more than just quenching free radicals,” she explains.Wecshler is a fan of Replenix, a line that utilizes 90 percent green tea polyphenols, and personally uses Chanel’s Hydra Beauty line that harnesses the antioxidant powers of blue ginger. But while the entire Chanel line can run into the high three figures, Wilson suggests a cheap alternative with a foolproof delivery system: “You know those individual vitamin E capsules that you can buy at any drugstore? Crack one open and put it on your skin.” A bottle of these costs about $6.(Cough.) Sorry, we think we just got an antioxidant stuck in our throats.