Preventing skin photodamage is something that you want to actively do now for your future self. That means:
1. sunscreen – everyday. No, if’s and’s or but’s. There’s unequivocally, indisputably no step more effective for anti-aging than sunscreen. 100% of dermatologists agree on this one.
2. Apply an antioxidant-rich serum underneath your sunscreen to boost the effectiveness of sunscreen and the overall skin’s defense.
Step 2 is what I’m talking about today. For Step 1, refer here.
We hear people talk about “free radicals” all the time, as though there are evil tiny aliens in the air ready to invade our faces. For a long time, it sounded to me like beauty counter jargon intended to compel people to make fear-based purchases. But free radicals are a real thing and they aren’t out there in the air, they’re actually inside of you. Free radicals are once-healthy cells that mutate into damaged cells from exposure to harmful environmental factors like pollution, smoking, unhealthy eating, and sun. They are dangerous because, much like the bad-influence kid in high school that your parents didn’t want you hanging out with, these cells go around corrupting others. Free radicals attach to healthy cells and take them down: inhibiting collagen production, destroying lipids (healthy fatty acids in the skin) and damaging their DNA structures. This is the free radical theory to aging.
Antioxidants are your protective shield to the potential harm of free radicals. Antioxidants have shown the ability to protect the skin from harmful environmental agents in the first place, but also to neutralize those cells that are mutated so they can’t spread. Some antioxidant ingredients can even repair damaged cells. Remember that you may not see much of an instant difference when you use antioxidants, but prolonged daily use will help your skin stay young for your future self.
The powerhouse antioxidant ingredients:
Plants make vitamins E and C to protect themselves from sunlight; they can help us with the exact same thing.
Vitamin E (tocopherol and tocotrienol are the two forms you’ll see on the ingredient list) is an oil-based nutrient. The top sources of tocopherol are wheat germ oil, sunflower oil, and almond oil (full list here). Tocotrienol is present in rice bran oil, coconut oil, cocoa butter and wheat germ among other sources. Vitamin E protects both parts of the cell – DNA and membrane – from free radicals. It also increases the efficacy of vitamin c when used together. Photodegradation of vitamin E happens quickly so it’s important to store your E-based product away from light especially if the bottle it comes in is not opaque. Vitamin E is also sensitive to heat.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid or ascorbate) is a water-based nutrient that can be found in dozens of natural plant sources. It boosts collagen and prevents oxidation (oxidation is a natural process which causes cell damage and ageing, but oxidative stress is accelerated by UV rays). Added to sunscreen or layered underneath sunscreen, Vitamin C increases skin’s topical photoprotection from UVA and UVB rays. Combined C and E is even more effective under broad spectrum sunscreen. Again, as in vitamin E, this antioxidant is vulnerable to destabilization when exposed to air, light and heat, so look for packaging in opaque bottles, air restrictive bottles and store product in a cool place. For vitamin C to be absorbed into skin, the solution must be formulated with a PH of 4 or lower.
Ferulic Acid is an antioxidant found in plant cell wall components. This natural phenol fights oxidation and research suggests that if added to a vitamin C and E formula, it will boost photoprotection and efficacy of C and E.
B3 (Niacinamide, Niacin) is an antioxidant that has been shown to increase fatty acid levels in skin, prevent moisture loss, and even skin tone. This is a good ingredient to look for if you are prone to break outs because it fortifies the skin’s barrier to bacteria and has anti-inflammatory properties. Be aware that niacinamide products with a concentration of 4% or higher can actually lighten skin – which may be a desired outcome for people with unwanted hyper-pigmentation or age spots. I like my freckles and don’t want to risk losing them so I personally do not use any niacinamide-based products.
Green Tea Extract comes from the tea plant Camelia Sinensis which posesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The secret lies in EGCG polyphenols which are found in the extract. Research has shown these polyphenols to prevent collagen breakdown and reduce UV damage by increasing cell enzyme and amino acid activity.
Resveratrol, another plant phenol, is abundant in the skin of red grapes (pat yourself on the back red win drinkers) as well as blueberries, pomegranate, blackberries, raspberries and peanuts. Topical formulas with resveratrol are believed to help protect skin against oxidative damage; in fact, plants produce this phenol to protect themselves when they are under stress from sun, pathogens, bacteria or funghi.
You want to look for a serum that contains a variety of these antioxidants but especially the first two – Vitamins E and C!
I personally use M-61’s Vitablast C every morning. It’s a vitamin C & E serum with gallic acid (another antioxidant plant phenol). Everything about this serum is well designed: the oil-free texture absorbs instantly (not sticky), formula is meticulously-edited and fragrance-free, bottle protects from light degradation. Yes, it is expensive at $92/1.oz. However, to give some context: SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic is beloved and often recommended by dermatoligists; it costs $162/1.0z and is a nearly identical product to M-61.
Perricone MD Vitamin E Esther Serum ($98/1.oz) has a devout following. It contains Ferulic Acid, Sodium Hyaluronate, Vitamin C Ester (a fat-soluble version) and vitamin E.
A product that targets free radicals with a different compilation of antioxidants is Topix’s Replenix Power of 3 Cream, which employs Resveratrol, Caffeine, and Green Tea Polyphenols ($70/1.oz).
Dr. Dennis Gross Clinical Concentrate Radiance Booster ($68/ 1.oz) is on my list to try because I’m just loving several other Dr. Gross products right now (expect upcoming posts on those!). This antioxidant serum contains Linoleic Acid (a moisturizing fatty acid that delivers vitamin C), Resveratrol and Green Tea Extract.
Ole Henrickson’s Truth Serum Vitamin C Collagen Booster is a very well-reviewed antioxidant-packed serum that’s more friendly on the wallet ($48/1. oz). Contains Vitamin C and E, Green Tea Extract, and humectant Sodium Hyaluronate (which is a good thing in any skincare product if you ask me).
Continuing with wallet friendly options is The Body Shop Vitamin E Overnight Serum-in-Oil ($27/.94 oz). This has a super high concentration of wheatgerm oil (great source of vitamin E) and skincare guru blogger Caroline Hirons loves it – which is all I need to know to try something. Caroline also says if your skin is on the drier side, you can use this in the am despite its label as a night serum. But if you want something lighter, the body shop has a whole range of vitamin E based products.
My most budget friendly recommendation would be Paula’s Choice. Paula’s Choice is vigilant about keeping prices reasonable while delivering high performance products. They have an array of antioxidant serums, but here are two to consider, both $34/1.oz: Paula’s Choice Resist Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum containing Vitamins C and E, Green Tea Extract, Ferulic Acid, Caffeic Acid, and Paula’s Choice Resist Ultra-Light Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum containing Niacinamide, Hyaluronic Acid, Resveratrol, and Vitamin C.
Just to clarify, I have only used the M-61 product, but these are all others I hope to try. Based on generally having my skincare-obsessed ear to the ground, and from surfing beauty sites, blogs, and talking to aestheticians and dermatologists, these are the ones I recurrently hear positive things about. When you browse, pay attention to texture – you want this layer of skincare to really feel weightless and invisible once you apply it. Also read ingredients carefully: if a formula contains particular things that are known irritants to your skin (fragrance? retinol? etc) then steer clear.
When to apply your antioxidant shield?
The morning, to maximize sunscreen and get protection against the forthcoming day’s many harmful environmental agents. I recommend this skincare order:
Cleanse, tone (get that PH right so your skin can actually absorb the serum you’ve just paid a lot for!), antioxidant serum, moisturizer and SPF. Or skip moisturizer if you so wish. BUT NEVER SKIP SPF!