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Dietary antioxidants for skin health: how food sources promote anti-aging benefits

Editorial note: an earlier version of this post first appeared on November 21, 2012. It was updated on October 15, 2020.

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Antioxidants are your body’s go-to defenders in the fight against all forms of aging, including aging skin. They team up against disease and counteract the effects of free radicals while combating the aging process.

While topical antioxidants are great, it’s important to know there’s more to protecting your skin than applying these ingredients externally. Eating a diet high in antioxidants can help to ward off signs of aging from within. The foods you consume can directly affect your skin. So, eating well and looking your best go hand-in-hand.

When it comes to anti-aging and diet, we may focus on topics like protein or collagen intake, which help promote skin thickness. Protein is certainly needed in our bodies. However, it’s not the only factor at play when it comes to the anti-aging benefits of a healthy diet.

Below, we’ll explain how antioxidants work, and what ingredients to look for in your diet, if you want glowing, healthy, youthful-looking skin.

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Antioxidants in our diet fight aging skin from the inside out

Free radicals are a core cause of aging, in all its aspects. We get free radicals from sun exposure, pollution, stress and diet. Smoking, unhealthy air, excessive alcohol consumption and even eating deep-fried foods can promote free radical formation within the body.

We can’t feel it when free radicals injure our cells. But when it happens, antioxidants go into defense mode. They work to stop the chain reaction of damaged cells, which can go on and on, causing trouble for our health, and our skin. Over time, without a strong defense, this type of cellular breakdown can lead to a number of chronic diseases, including skin health issues. Even wrinkles, brown spots, melasma and other cosmetic concerns can be attributed to free radical damage.

Antioxidants help to counteract this ‘domino’ effect of cell destruction. So, it’s beneficial to maintain a steady supply of antioxidants in your body, through dietary intake (while being careful not to take too much of certain kinds, if they can cause toxicity). This way, your body can fight free radical damage as it happens.

How do antioxidants work their wonders against free radical invaders? We explain this in detail in the following article:

It’s important to note that, while antioxidants provide an important defense system against free radical damage, they do not negate the effects of destructive habits like smoking, excessive alcohol intake or even unnecessary UV exposure. Prevention is always the best strategy. So, definitely avoid those things, as a start!

You should also always practice good sun protection. Apply a high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen daily, and wear sun-protective clothing.

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Antioxidants fit into a well-balanced, healthy diet; they’re easy to get!

Eating well-balanced meals with a complex mix of antioxidants can help to ward off free radicals, and the havoc they wreak on our skin and body.

What are the best sources of antioxidants? There are many! Think: vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. Using these ingredients can round out your diet. You may already be eating them. And if not, they’re easy to find in our Western grocery stores.

These types of foods contain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that often perform specific functions when it comes to health and combating disease. So it’s important to get as many nutrients as possible.

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For example:

Food minerals and compounds that act as antioxidants

Many other minerals and compounds in our food can do the job of fighting free radicals. They include:

Lycopene

Found in tomatoes and watermelons, this chemical compound helps defend the skin against sun damage. It is technically a carotenoid, but doesn’t act like Vitamin A.

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Isothiocyanates

Antioxidants like isothiocyanates, found in cruciferous vegetables (e.g. the brassicaceae family of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts, mustards, etc.), can battle skin cancer (and so much more!).

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Selenium

Selenium, found in Brazil nuts, grains, seafood and meats, is a mineral that acts like Vitamin E when it comes to protecting cell barriers. It also fights infection in the skin and calms irritation.

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Resveratrol

Found in the skins of berries, peanuts and in wine, this phenol has been shown to boost collagen production.

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Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)

This catechin polyphenol (a plant compound) reduces collagen degradation from UV exposure. It also prevents cancer. The most popular source of EGCG is in tea, including green tea, black tea, white tea and oolong tea. However, it can be found in some fruits and nuts, too.

Like anything we list in this article, too much EGCG can have side effects. So, speak to a doctor before taking it as a supplement. This article on Healthline explains more.

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Other polyphenols

Polyphenols are found in thousands of other forms. As a group, they all have antioxidant properties. They can be sourced from many plants, but are especially abundant in berries, red wine, vegetables, dark chocolate, tea, herbs and spices. However, cooking food can reduce polyphenols. So, it’s good to aim for raw dishes as well as cooked ones in your diet.

Polyphenols are divided into groupings, which have even more sub-groupings. Examples of polyphenols categorizations include flavonoids (of which catechins are included), phenolic acids, polyphenolic amides, stilbenes, and lignans.

Polyphenols help protect the skin against UV damage.

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Melatonin

While not an antioxidant in itself, this circadian rhythm hormone has been shown to increase the production of vitamin enzymes. These then can fight photodamage on your skin, and of course, in your body.

Your body should naturally produce melatonin in response to darkness (at night). It does this through the pineal gland. Melatonin is the hormone that makes you tired. This is the main reason sleep experts advise not using technological devices at night. They produce light, which interferes with melatonin production.

You can get melatonin naturally from foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. However, for those who have trouble sleeping, it can be bought over-the-counter as a supplement. These days, it’s available as a topical ingredient in skin care products, too.

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Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)

This is another antioxidant that your body produces naturally, provided it’s getting the right foods through your diet. It can be found in meat, fish and whole grains. However, it decreases as you age. For that reason, it may be recommended to take it as a supplement. Though, this ingredient can interfere with medicines, or cause side effects, so speak to a doctor before taking it in pill form.

CoQ10 helps with collagen production, thus reducing the appearance of wrinkles and lines. It also prevents excessive melanin production, which can lead to brown spots and melasma.

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Vitamin antioxidants that fight free radical damage

In addition to the above antioxidant compounds, we also have the vitamin antioxidants. Vitamins are essential for our nutrition, but our bodies can not produce them on their own.

These molecules are often included in topical creams to help battle aging skin externally. The good news is that they help our skin when taken internally too!

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Included in this group of antioxidants are:

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is probably the most widely studied vitamin when it comes to skin care. It can help with acne and other issues, besides aging skin.

It also has many off-shoots. For example, beta carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, retinol, retinoic acid and many other ingredients fall into this category. Even a carotenoid molecule called crocin, found in saffron, has shown to be an effective antioxidant for aging skin treatments.

We’ve written about the major benefits of Vitamin A in skin care at the following article:

Of course, you can take vitamin A internally too, through foods like carrots, pumpkins, squash, cantaloupe, leafy greens, liver and more.

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Vitamin B family

In the Vitamin B family we mainly have:

  • Thiamin (vitamin B1)
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
  • Niacin (vitamin B3)
  • Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)
  • Pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
  • Biotin (vitamin B7)
  • Folate (vitamin B9)
  • Cobalamin (vitamin B12)

What about the ‘gaps’ of missing numbers? They are no longer considered vitamins. So, a typical vitamin B complex only includes the ones listed above.

When it comes to skin, the B vitamins that are most talked about are provitamin B5 and niacinamide, which is vitamin B3. Provitamin B5 is a hydrator. Niacinamide helps to regulate oil and melanin production. It can also reduce redness. Of course, both are antioxidants, too.

The health of skin is greatly dependent on the B vitamins (which are water-soluble). Without them, skin can look dry, irritated or acneic. B vitamins help with wound healing, thanks to their ability to promote cell regeneration. To that end, they help with skin texture, too.

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Vitamin C

Sometimes referred to as L-ascorbic acid, this water-soluble, antioxidant vitamin works well in combination with vitamin E, when fighting free radicals. However, as a product ingredient, it is very photo unstable. This means it degrades when exposed to light. For that reason, when used topically, it can come in the form of esters, which are much more able to withstand the effects of light.

Internally, we can get vitamin C from citrus fruits (like oranges), peppers, broccoli and more.

Vitamin C is known to help with tissue regeneration, collagen production and moisture in the skin.

See more on our blog:

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Vitamin D

Vitamin D also helps with skin regeneration and inflammation. This fat-soluble antioxidant can be found in fatty fish and their oils (like cod liver oil), egg yolks, other livers and the foods that are commonly fortified with it, such as milk and cereals. Calcium-rich foods may have vitamin D added to them because vitamin D helps with the absorption of calcium.

Now, it’s true we can get vitamin D from the sun. This is thanks to our skin’s ability to produce it from cholesterol, when it gets sun exposure. However, too much sun exposure can lead to more skin problems than benefits. So if you choose this route to getting vitamin D, be careful, and cautious not to get too much. SPF, for instance, is still recommended.

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Vitamin E

Vitamin E is another fat-soluble antioxidant. In skin care, its off-shoots can be referred to as tocopherols. It helps prevent wrinkle formation. It also works to stop cellular damage that causes skin cancer. You can get it in sunflower seeds, nuts and nut oils. As with many other vitamins, you can also get it from green, leafy vegetables.

Vitamin E works in synergy with vitamin C. So, it’s best to find a product that contains both of these vitamins together.

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Vitamin K

Vitamin K comes in two forms: K1 and K2. Vitamin K1 can also be called phytonadione in skin care products. This is a fat-soluble vitamin that aids in wound healing. It has been studied for its ability to help with dark eye circles (since the skin in that area is thin, allowing blood pigments to show through it).

While we won’t get into the differences between Vitamin K1 and K2 here, know that they can be obtained from both plant and animal food sources. It’s not the most talked about antioxidant (especially when it comes to skin care). But, it certainly fights free radicals, like the other vitamins.

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Are there other vitamins with more letter names?

The names of vitamins are confusing. They don’t follow a logical sequence. This is because of how they were discovered… and then discovered to not be vitamins… and then discovered to be similar to other vitamins. You can learn more about this confusing naming classification in this video.

We’ve identified the main vitamins above.

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There’s more to ‘good skin’ diets than antioxidants can provide!

While we’ve listed a bunch of antioxidants that are great to have in your diet, this doesn’t mean that antioxidants are the only thing to look for in foods, if you’re concerned about aging skin. For example omega-3 fatty acids, prebiotics, probiotics, protein and even water are important for skin health. Other nutrients may also help your body use antioxidants, to begin with. So we certainly can’t ignore the rest of this ‘equation,’ if we want good skin.

Not only that, we have only listed some of the antioxidants you can find in common foods. There are more out there!

When it comes to bodily health or skin health, it’s best to avoid zeroing in on one antioxidant or food function. Incorporating a wide array of antioxidants into your diet and skin care routine is the best way to achieve optimal protection.

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Antioxidants can still be applied topically for anti-aging benefits

While antioxidants in your diet can certainly promote skin health, remember that they can also be applied topically. As a skin care treatment provider, we would be amiss not to point that out! Applying vitamins and other antioxidants on your skin can help to target their taskwork.

For example, instead of dietary antioxidants helping your skin first, your body may ‘send’ them to other areas you need them most. That’s fantastic – you definitely want your diet to supply you with all the nutrients you need! But when aiming to treat skin conditions, you can opt for topical antioxidants, too. This way, your skin can use them more directly.

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Try topical vitamin-based skin care products from our shop:

And more!

Shop all of our cosmeceutical products here.

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Antioxidants are a cornerstone to any skin care routine

As we’ve seen above, antioxidants help your skin fight off wrinkles and other signs of aging from the inside-out. They support your skin’s ability to repair itself and defend against free radical damage (which can come from external or internal sources). Antioxidants are essential when it comes to bodily health, and our skin is definitely part of that. When you are healthy on the inside, it will show on the outside.

While ingesting a wide variety of antioxidants through a balanced diet is fantastic, they can also be applied through topical skin care products. Well-made anti-aging products, acne treatments and hyperpigmentation creams often contain these types of ingredients. Look for them during your next skin care shopping spree!

Finally, it goes without saying that the best form of skin protection is prevention. Antioxidants can help to stop free radical damage chain reactions. However, overall health, including sun protection, avoiding smoking and breathing in clean air is also important in this regard.

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See more on our blog to learn how diet, antioxidants and sun protection help our skin in other ways:

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