chemistry lesson: antioxidants


antioxidants in cosmetics - Cosmetic Composition

image from FutureDerm


As the summer season has fallen upon us I’m sure you have seen suggestions to use and consume antioxidants to help prevent and repair the damage done to our skin. So sure, you know antioxidants are great for us but what exactly are these magical little compounds?

what is an antioxidant?

To put it technically, antioxidants quench free radicals found in our body and slow down the oxidation process. Antioxidants can exist in synthetic forms but also occur naturally in sources such as vitamin A, C, and E (remember ACE every day), flavonoids, phenolics, etc. So yes this means you can get your daily dose of antioxidants from fruits, veggies, honey, and even dark chocolate and wine. However during the summer, or if you live in a particularly sunny area, the addition of an antioxidant would be beneficial in your beauty routine.

Traditionally antioxidants were added to foods to help keep products from oxidizing (spoiling) and help extend the shelf life.  However once the molecular function of antioxidants were discovered scientists began using them in beauty and health products.

antioxidants in cosmetics

The use of antioxidants in skin care/cosmetic products is to counteract the existence of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that become present due to harmful UV rays. ROS’s are oxygen compounds where the oxygen is lacking an electron and therefore will try to react with anything it can causing damage along the way, this is where antioxidants come in. While yes, our skin does contain natural antioxidants and ingesting additional antioxidants is definitely beneficial for our health, sometimes our skin cannot handle the oxidative stress occurring. This oxidative stress can become too much for our skin to handle and damage will end up occurring, which is why scientists started formulated with antioxidants.

BHT antioxidant

BHT (image from about education)

So how do antioxidants work exactly? Let’s take butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) for example, a very commonly used antioxidant in cosmetics and personal care products. In the structure of BHT, there is an alcohol group (the -OH), this H is hydrogen bonded to the oxygen but not very strongly so the H is able to jump to the ROS giving it that missing electron. This mechanism calms down the ROS; quenching that free radical allows the system to return to rest.

Some examples of antioxidants commonly used in cosmetics are BHT, BHA, tocopherol (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), retinol (vitamin A derivative), honey, and hydroquinone. Another great thing about antioxidants is that they can often act as a preservative for the product, preventing the system itself from going rancid/oxidizing.

misconceptions about antioxidants in cosmetics

I feel like I must address a very important issue revolving antioxidants. As I mentioned earlier antioxidants can be obtained from fruits and veggies, however, this does not mean that including these foods in cosmetics will necessarily have the same effect. To roughly quote The Beauty Brains, if food were able to absorb into our skin like cosmetics then we’d just place food on ourselves instead of digesting it. So be wary of buying that kale infused body lotion and take a look at the ingredient label to check for any antioxidants. Another good thing to note is that if you prefer the natural beauty movement, many antioxidants are non-synthetic and can be found in the current beauty market.

Any comments and/or questions? I’d love to hear about your experiences with antioxidants in cosmetics! 


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