As cosmetic ingredients go, antioxidants such as green tea, pomegranate, mushroom, vanilla, not forgetting good old-timers vitamins C and E, have ranked as skincare royalty for more than 20 years now. It’s reassuring to think that these warrior molecules in our moisturisers offer extra defence against a hostile environment and its omnipresent threat of early wrinkles. Yet in the world of cosmetics, any ingredient that becomes an anti-ageing generic (consider penta-peptides and alpha-hydroxy acids) risks being overpromoted, but barely understood. Such is the power of the A-word that each year ushers new “breakthroughs” into the cream chain.
On the ascendant is lactobionic acid, a third-generation alpha-hydroxy acid with both skin-smoothing and cell-defending potential, used in medicine to prevent oxidative tissue damage to transplant organs. In Bakel Lactobionic Antioxidant Formula (£90, 30ml) it helps soothe both damaged and post-procedural skin angry from laser or peels. Tests have shown the amino-acid derivative Skingenecell 1P in Shiseido Future Solution LX Ultimate Regenerating Serum (£250, 30ml) lowers levels of Serpin b3, an aggressive protein unleashed by oxidative stress. But with an arsenal of some 200,000 potentials already on standby, why the obsession for upping the antis?
Antioxidants neutralise free radicals, which attack and destroy cells throughout the body. First indentified in 1956 by Berkeley biophysician Dr Denham Harman in his Free Radical Theory of Aging, these rogue molecules are the toxic fallout from all bodily functions, and everything from cell division to breathing generates them. They’re not all bad, either. Important players in the body’s clean-up operations, free radicals are released by the immune system to fight disease. Yet an overload created by environmental excesses, such as ultraviolet light, pollution and smoking, means these singlet molecules with their unpaired electrons seek partner cells to latch onto and mug. In skin, the resulting DNA damage causes lines and wrinkles, sagging, hyper-pigmented “age” spots and ultimately, cancer.
“Photo-ageing is largely caused by oxidative damage in the skin,” explains Dr Stefanie Williams, a clinical dermatologist and founder of European Dermatology London. “This oxidative damage is even worse when UVA exposure is combined with urban pollutants, including cigarette smoke. Topical antioxidants can prevent the effects of oxidative stress and partly reverse the damage by acting as decoys, partnering and stabilising free radicals,” she says. Happily, the latest arsenal of cell-defending creams awaits the winter onslaught.
Estimated to be 25 to 30 times more potent than vitamin E, it’s claimed that the amino-acid spermine in Skin Science Bio Active Renewal Complex Cream (£90, 50ml) can delay ageing by 20 per cent. Chanel’s Sublimage La Crème Texture Supreme (£240, 50ml) uses detoxifying Himalayan Golden Champa flower extract to clear the decks for UV-repellent Madagascan vanilla. Meanwhile, La Prairie Cellular Radiance Concentrate Pure Gold (£386, 30ml) contains Emblica fruit extract, rich in skin-brightening vitamin C, while Cellular Power Infusion (£310, 19ml) comprises a four- to six-week booster course for weary skin. Its energising core complex contains hardy Swiss Snow Algae extract, said to energise sirtuins – longevity genes inside skin cells. Guerlain Orchidée Impériale New Generation Exceptional Complete Care (£255, 50ml) packs the extract of the long-living imperial orchid, and claims to quench inflammation and extend cell life.
It’s no surprise these ingredients read like incumbents of the Kew Gardens hot houses. Antioxidants are found in bark, peel and in leaves as a defence against extreme conditions. Dark red leaves and fruit with high levels of beta-carotene provide potent UV-protection, hence the popularity of pomegranate and grape polyphenols, found in skincare ranges such as Murad and Caudalie.
Human skin also stores its own, including superoxide dismutase (SOD) glutathione, ubiquinone (Co-Enzyme Q10) and vitamins C and E. However, these are insufficient to cope with free-radical overloads in the environment, says Dr Marko Lens, plastic surgeon and researcher at King’s College Hospital, London. Moreover, since oxidative stress elicits a cascade of chemical reactions, no single antioxidant can neutralise them all, he adds. Combined antioxidants will “mop up” free radicals, such as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), the most common skin-ageing and cancer-causing type generated by sunlight; inflammatory Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS); and Reactive Carbonyl Species (RCS), the fallout from exhaust fumes responsible for glycation, a process that atrophies collagen and elastin proteins.
“Fighting free radicals is like going to war – you need to fight them from the ground, air and sea,” Dr Lens believes. “Imagine you apply a cream that kills all free radicals in your skin. Then you go outside and are exposed to new ones. You eat, drink and breathe and generate more. How much protection will the formula you applied to your skin at 8am give you at 12 o’clock?” Lens asks. He argues that the efficacy of any antioxidant is easy enough to prove in the test tube, yet on skin it’s a ticklish process. Frustrated by the lack of standardised tests for cosmetics, Lens developed his own, which was published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, to monitor formulas such as 3t Complex (£95, 50ml) in his newly updated Zelens range.
So what are the key antioxidant ingredients? The gold standard is L-Ascorbic Acid – vitamin C – but here’s the catch: “It’s difficult to stabilise in a decent concentration, so good products that contain it are scarce. Studies confirm that if you get it right, it penetrates skin and works,” Dr Williams confirms. She recommends fast-penetrating serums SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic (£128, 30ml) with L-Ascorbic Acid and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) and super-potent Phloretin CF (£140, 30ml). “Vitamin C recycles oxidised vitamin E, while Ferulic acid helps stabilise and increase the potency of both,” she says, adding that since even broad-specrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreens only block up to 55 per cent of free-radical attack, antioxidants can be a safety net. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Experimental Dermatology found that antioxidants increase sunscreen protection; and the combination of both provided a better defence against pigmentation than either ingredient alone. For a take-no-prisoners remedy for age spots, try Prevage Clarity Targeted Skin Tone Corrector (£100, 30ml), with Soy Ferulate-C and idebenone, Then use a high-level sunscreen, such as SkinCeuticals Sheer Mineral UV Defense, SPF50 (£28, 50ml).
Can supplements up the anti from the inside? Among the first doctors to link antioxidant diets with great skin, Dr Nicholas Perricone recommends supplementing his anti-wrinkle and firming cream, Acyl-Glutathione (£138, 30ml; glutathione is the chief “youth” antioxidant, he maintains) with daily doses of Alpha-Lipoic Acid (£25, 60 capsules) and DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol; £25, 60 capsules) to firm up skin. DMAE is found in oily fish and, claims Perricone, lends a unique potency to all his firming formulas. While Visoanska’s Formule Longevité Cellulaire (£185 for 30ml and 30 tablets) includes antioxidant biometric peptides, vitamins and minerals, and Baobab red fibre, said to rival vitamin C in potency.
Lens agrees the pill-popping patients he sees have marginally better skin, although clinical trials to back anecdotal evidence are scant. “Some studies show the benefits on skin of dietary polyphenols, such as green tea extracts, silymarin and grape seed. Turmeric, lycopene and resveratrol also look promising. But the jury’s still out,” Dr Williams says. One company to run double-blind trials is Ferrosan, which claims that post-menopausal women taking Imedeen Prime Renewal (£55, 120 tablets; a marine-based formula with vitamins C, E, white tea, grape seed and lycopene) noticed that their lines, wrinkles and mottled pigmentation had all improved after six months.
Whereas forecasters hype “beauty from within”, “neutriceuticals” is a slow-burning trend. “Topical antioxidants provide better protection than oral supplements, where concentrations that end up in the skin are never as high,” Dr Williams points out. Contentious studies haven’t helped. Instead of boosting skin defence, oral antioxidants may in fact fuel the development of malignant melanoma (an aggressive skin cancer), especially in fair-skinned people, suggests research at the National Centre for Rare Skin Diseases in Bordeaux. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Physiology by Professor Häkan Westerblad of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet came out on the side of free radicals, which power mitochondria – cell “engines” – into causing the heart to beat with the correct force. Antioxidants dull this response, it was found.
Dr Tom Mammone, Clinique’s executive director of skin physiology and pharmacology, puts antioxidants in perspective. “They’re hugely valuable, but not all of them fit into every product. And you won’t get true ageing reduction with antioxidants alone,” he says. Antioxidants are constantly evolving, but for the present their inclusion in creams should support more directly active ingredients, such as the wrinkle-smoothing poly-peptides in Clinique Repairwear Laser Focus Wrinkle & UV Damage Corrector (£37, 30ml). “They’re up there in the top three ingredients, but for real anti-ageing action, also look for vitamin A derivatives, such as retinol and retinaldehyde,” adds Dr Williams.
Above all, don’t abandon your broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen. In the war against environmental ageing, it’s still the most radical defence of all.