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The role of Antioxidants in Modern Skincare

This article, The Role of Antioxidants in Modern Skincare, was written by Dr. Howard Murad, one of the country's foremost authorities on skincare.

Dr. Murad believes that acne treatment isn't just about selecting the best acne treatment skin care products. It's also about treating your body from the inside out with the proper nutrients and vitamins.

Environmental Aging

Since I began practicing medicine in 1972, I have been studying the ability of antioxidants to repair and protect the skin. Witnessing first hand the effects of sun exposure, pollution, smoking, alcohol and stress on my patients’ skin led me to study the role of antioxidants in environmental aging. The difference between the aging of a sequestered monk and that of a farm worker the same age was not only visibly astounding, it also supported my belief that while biological aging is inevitable, environmental aging is widely preventable.

Antioxidants have made their way front and center into the eye and mind of the consumer. These miracle cell protectors represent the front line of defense in the war against environmental aging. As the professional skincare industry continues to explore the role of antioxidants, we are entering an exciting time to both educate, protect, and deliver our clients and patients advanced products to address a wide range of skincare concerns and slow the effects of environmental aging.

Free Radicals vs. Topical Antioxidants

Each and every day, the human body’s largest organ, the skin, is bombarded with environmental assailants resulting from exposure to smoke, pollution, and most importantly, ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This is in addition to the one thousand hits each cell sustains by free radicals generated by the body’s own metabolism. In the skin, free radicals trigger the release of inflammatory mediators, breaking down collagen and damaging cell barrier. In addition to this external damage, free radicals are one of the main factors contributing to the formation of cancerous cells.

Luckily, it is possible to literally boost the skin’s external defenses against harmful free radicals and control environmental aging by applying antioxidants topically. Countless studies have proven that antioxidants applied to the skin’s surface offer protection from sun damage and stimulate collagen production. The most powerful and potent of these topical antioxidants are Vitamin C and Pomegranate.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a multi-tasker for the skin. It prevents water loss, helping to maintain the skin’s barrier function, while building collagen and elastin. Furthermore, Vitamin C deactivates the unstable free radicals, preventing much of their potential damage. There is also increasing evidence that Vitamin C shields the skin from the sun’s burning rays, especially when it’s applied in high concentrations or combined with vitamin E, sunscreens, and skin soothers.

Today, we have learned much about topical preparations of Vitamin C. Cosmetic chemists must carefully regulate the percentage concentration and delivery system, as these crucial variables determine the effectiveness of the product. I have spent many years working to develop an over-the-counter, highly concentrated, stable vitamin C product that consumers can easily use at home.

Vitamin C is actually quite delicate. It is water soluble, but when mixed with water and exposed to oxygen it fails to maintain antioxidant activity. In addition, Vitamin C rapidly disintegrates when exposed to light. After much painstaking work, I developed and patented a technology that uses a highly concentrated form of Vitamin C in a water-free lotion. It’s a rich, soothing cream that can deliver pure Vitamin C to the upper layers of the skin without irritation and in consistently high amounts. Over the years since this discovery, research has shown that repeated use of Vitamin C is best, as this builds a reservoir of Vitamin C on the skin.

There are also “mix and use” products that involve mixing Vitamin C into a base or vehicle and applying it immediately while the Vitamin C is still active. I find these products to be extremely effective, especially for higher concentrations of Vitamin C that physicians or estheticians can safely deliver to the skin. I do not recommend such high concentrations for consumer use. Topical products containing safe levels of Vitamin C are widely available to today’s consumers, delivering antioxidants to skin with both cosmetic and protective effects.


The ellagic acid found in pomegranate fruit is the most recent addition to my antioxidant army. I first became interested in ellagic acid as I studied polyphenols, which is the active compound that gives the pomegranate its antioxidant energy. Not only is ellagic acid one of the most potent antioxidants, effectively scavenging free radicals, it also stimulates an increase in the body’s own built-in antioxidant, glutathione.

Pomegranate (Punica granatum L) is a native plant of Northern Africa, and one of the oldest natural remedies known to man. P granatum was mentioned in the papyrus Ebers of Egypt written in about 1550 BC. Hippocrates described its medicinal powers. Doctors in Greece prescribed pomegranate juice as a remedy with multiple activities: anti-inflammatory; as a potent anthelmintic (acting to expel or destroy intestinal worms), chronic diarrhea, dysentery, and cough suppressant.

Perhaps the most extraordinary benefit of this radically innovative ingredient is that it actually boosts the SPF rating of topical sunscreens so that the same SPF protection levels are maintained using less chemicals and more antioxidants. Research shows that ellagic acid, found in pomegranate juice has the strongest age-proofing capabilities to date and is currently being studied for its anti-cancer and healing benefits.

In a recent South Dakota State University study entitled Chemopreventative Effects of Pomegranate Seed Oil on Skin Tumor Development, Pomegranate extract was applied topically to topical skin tumors on mice. After five weeks, the study concluded that topical application of pomegranate oil inhibited papilloma incidence and activity.

The protective and healing properties of the Pomegranate are increasingly important today, as the rate of skin cancer is increasing faster that any other cancer among Western countries. Topical application of ellagic acid found in Pomegranates is so effective at preventing sun damage that I added it to all of the products in my suncare line.

Antioxidant Auxiliary

In addition to Vitamin C and Pomegranate, other powerful antioxidants such as Vitamin E, Coenzyme Q 10, Grapeseed Extract, and Alpha Lipoic Acid are powerful allies in the war against free radicals. When used before sun exposure Vitamin E reduces redness and swelling of the skin, results in less destruction of lipids, and fewer sunburn cells. When Vitamin E and Vitamin C are combined in high concentration, topical products offer amplified sun protection.

Standardized extracts of green tea and grape seed are other powerful antioxidants included in many of my products. Like Vitamin C and Pomegranate, these are truly multipurpose agents. Grape seed extract, for instance, not only disarms free radicals, studies have also shown this antioxidant to reinforce the structural fibers of the skin, collagen, and elastin.

Coenzyme Q 10, also known as ubiquinone, and Alpha lipoic acid help to protect the skin from sun damage by suppressing the production of the collagen-destroying enzyme, collagenase and evidence supports that topical use of Coenzyme Q 10 penetrates between cells.

The Future of Antioxidants

The role of antioxidants in both anti-aging and protective topical products has become a hot-button topic. Amongst the aging baby boomer generation, topical antioxidant products are increasingly in demand, both to reverse damage accumulated over years of exposure to the sun, dehydration, and environmental assailants and to protect skin from the harmful effects of such environmental pollution. I have also noticed a preventative trend resonating in Gen X and Gen Y’ers, who are adopting anti-aging skincare regimens (as early as 20 years of age), in an attempt to thwart signs of aging and protect skin from environmental damage before the tell-tale signs of aging emerge.

Perhaps the most exciting development of all is the mainstream understanding and demand for antioxidants and SPF in topical skincare products. Today’s average consumer is well versed and educated as to the effects of environmental damage, both from a cosmetic and a wellness perspective. As a result, ingredients such as Vitamin C and Pomegranate are becoming increasingly integral components of skincare and SPF has been widely included into cosmetic products. More and more, customers are adopting proactive paradigms about their bodies and overall wellness, becoming savvy about the benefits of Vitamin C and Pomegranate. Consumer knowledge and education translates directly to the esthetician and spa professional, as the demand for such antioxidant rich treatments escalates by the day.

As skincare professionals continue to research and develop advanced antioxidant technologies, we enter into an exciting period where dermatologists and estheticians can offer the consumer the cosmetic effects of beautiful, wrinkle free skin while providing valuable, life saving protection against environmental damage.

Dr. Murad is a researcher, Board-Certified Dermatologist, pharmacist, Associate Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and CEO of Murad, Inc.

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