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Antioxidants in Natural Skin Care

Szilvia Hickman November 2012 issue of Skin Inc. magazine
professional skin care client eating antioxidant-rich grapes

Antioxidants work to prevent damage to the body before it actually happens. They protect and nurture cells naturally, combating disease and promoting good health. Antioxidants come in many forms, including minerals, enzymes and vitamins. Vitamins and minerals with antioxidant properties are called nutrient antioxidants. The family of naturally formed components protects cells from free radicals, which are highly charged oxygen molecules with unpaired electrons that attempt to obtain electrons from other molecules.

Free radicals are formed naturally in the body, but their production is increased by factors such as smoking, sun damage, stress and toxins like air pollution and asbestos. The resulting damage diminishes the skin’s structural support and decreases its elasticity, resilience and suppleness, leads to inflammation, and is the source of liver spots and poor skin condition. In addition to being the main culprit of wrinkles, free radicals, in essence, accelerate the aging process. Studies have shown antioxidants stop this cellular chain reaction of oxidation by neutralizing free radicals.1

Vitamin power

Antioxidants can improve cell function; increase collagen production; improve elasticity; create healthier, younger skin cells; and reduce sun damage ... but the improvement takes time. Like a healthy diet, the more potent the antioxidants used, the healthier the results. Black currants, cherries, cantaloupe, grapes, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, peppers and spinach are among a growing variety of foods found to contain surprisingly high levels of disease-fighting antioxidant compounds, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2004. This study is one of the largest, most comprehensive analyses to date of the antioxidant content of commonly consumed foods.

As an ultimate superfruit, the grape’s abundance of polyphenols with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties not only keeps blood vessels resilient, but also boosts the skin and body’s resistance against disease. Researchers have found, in particular, that the skin and seeds of grapes contain large concentrations of compounds that have a positive effect on health, such as bioflavonoids, including quercetin, which has an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect, and oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), incredibly effective chemicals in neutralizing free radicals.2 OPCs are a special family of polyphenols (bioflavonoids) capable of renewing the most important building blocks—such as collagen and elastin fibers—of every part of the human body, including the skin. In the connective tissue, OPCs bind to collagen to maintain and even restore the cross-links, hence the flexibility of these essential proteins.2 Grape seeds are one of the richest known sources of OPCs. Red grapes also contain a natural plant antibody, resveratrol, which has the effects of an antioxidant.

Vitamin E is a high-potency antioxidant that helps improve circulation and repair tissue, and is one of the most efficient chain-breaking antioxidants available. It helps prevent cell damage by inhibiting the formation of free radicals. Vitamin E helps retard aging and may help prevent age spots. Alpha-tocopherol—a form of vitamin E—helps protect enzymes, such as glutathione peroxidase 4, which is known to act against cancerous cell activity.3 Alpha-tocopherol is the most common antioxidant source from food. Some of the natural sources of vitamin E are nut oils, corn oil, tomatoes, spinach and peppers.

In addition to helping fortify cells against free radicals, vitamins A and C also encourage cell and tissue growth, helping the body to repair itself. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that plays a major role in many physical functions, including collagen production, immune function, cell growth and cancer prevention. One of the most potent natural sources of vitamin C is rose hips, and carrots are a primary source for vitamin A.

Topical care

Antioxidants can come from healthy eating, but only a small percentage of consumed antioxidants actually reach the skin, because they primarily act internally in the body. However, products containing antioxidants can be used to directly affect the skin.4 Antioxidants can be found in everything from masks, moisturizers and cleansers to anti-wrinkle and anti-aging creams, serums and lotions. Topical applications should contain a potent assortment of stable antioxidants to interrupt free-radical damage. Effective antioxidants for the skin range from green tea, grape extract or vitamin C to idebenone, epigallocatechin-3-gallate or superoxide dismutase. Certain phytochemicals, such as lycopenes and anthocyanins, and zoochemicals, such as conjugated linoleic acid, are called non-nutrient antioxidants. Selenium, copper and zinc are some of the most common antioxidant minerals. They can be absorbed by plants and can appear as micronutrients in botanical ingredients grown in rich soils that are used in skin care products. Antioxidant enzymes include catalase, superoxide dismutase and various peroxidases. The more the better—the skin does better with a cocktail of effective antioxidants.

Although most antioxidants can be used as a single agent, studies have shown that they work best as a team.5 Take a look at nature, for example, and you’ll see that plants, including fruits and vegetables, contain many different phytonutrients—the source of antioxidants. These phytonutrients serve various functions in plants—some protect the plant from UV radiation while others protect it from insects—all of which work together to protect the plant’s vitality. This reinforces the idea that antioxidants are designed by nature to work together.

At the spa

For clients who want a natural approach to smooth, healthy skin, incorporate antioxidants into their skin care routine for a positive effect. Vitamins A, C and E and the mineral selenium—a nutrient that functions as cofactor for the reduction of antioxidant enzymes—are believed to be particularly helpful in skin care. Selenium is the only mineral that functions as an antioxidant. Skin care products containing selenium help improve the skin’s elasticity, fight acne, prevent free radicals from damaging collagen and elastin in the skin, and reduce the effects of aging.

Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant enzyme that helps to protect cells from damage. CoQ10 is needed to create energy in a cell and, as cells age and are damaged, levels of CoQ10 decrease, as well. Studies have shown that CoQ10 can penetrate the skin, reduce wrinkle depth and prevent sun damage.6

In addition to helping fortify cells against free radicals, vitamins A and C also encourage cell and tissue growth, helping the body to repair itself. This is very helpful to the skin, which is constantly shedding and re-growing cells. For this reason, any antioxidants that protect cells and encourage cell growth could be helpful in an anti-aging regimen, because they may help fight fine lines and wrinkles

When antioxidants are used on the skin, even if they don’t penetrate beyond the upper layers, they can help to stop or slow the process of oxidation caused by free radicals and keep the cell membranes more stable.4 The problem with some antioxidants is that they themselves are not stable, so, as soon as they are exposed to oxygen or light, they break down. The trick is to use antioxidants that are stable, effective and nonirritating in adequate concentrations to exert an effect. Reputable skin care lines do contain stable antioxidants. Personal care products are typically preserved by natural or synthetic preservatives that provide a well-tested and well-determined shelf life to the products. This shelf life is the base of the warranties that manufacturers and distributors provide on their products. It is advised to discontinue the use of products after their shelf life expires, because the stability of antioxidants may be compromised. Also, read ingredient lists carefully and select products that have a treatment manual with detailed information on all ingredients. Examples of antioxidants used often in skin care products are grape seed oil, and vitamins A, C, and E.

The market for anti-aging products for appearance enhancement in the United States is expected to reach more than $5 billion by 2015, according to a report by the Global Industry Analysts, Inc. And while a burgeoning baby boomer population has largely fueled the growth, other factors contributing to the anti-aging surge are an expanded interest among those ages 25–30. The United States and Europe are leading the anti-aging market with a 62.8% share, and future growth is only expected to continue within the cosmeceutical category at an estimated annual rate of 10%.

With so much growth potential and so much consumer interest to lead healthier lives, there has never been a better time than now to incorporate a natural treatment offering that relies on the powerful benefits that only antioxidants can deliver. Antioxidant facials, massages and body wraps are just a few ways to add this component to your spa menu.

At home

After providing a client with a customized skin analysis, be sure to offer a list of products used during the treatment, with a description of each one’s benefits and active ingredients, and work with clients to ensure their purchases from your retail area will support their in-spa care. Today’s consumers are more and more ingredient savvy and want to know exactly what is in their skin care products; so, be sure you know the products you are recommending. In between services, educate your clients on a customized treatment plan that will help to maintain the services they received at your facility. Daily replenishment of topical antioxidants provides the skin with an arsenal to deflect the assault and minimize the damage created by free radicals.


  1. B Halliwell, R Aeschbach, J Loliger and OI Aruoma, The characterization of antioxidants Food and Chemical Toxicology, 33 7 601–617 (1995)
  2. J Souquet, V Cheynier, F Brossaud and M Moutounet, Polymeric proanthocyanidins from grape skins, Phytochemistry 43 2 509–512 (1996)
  3. R Brigelius-Flohé and MG Traber, Vitamin E: Function and metabolism, The FASEB Journal 13 10 1145–1155 (1999)
  4. AI Bogdan and L Baumann, Antioxidants used in skin care formulations, Skin Therapy Lett 13 7 5–9 (2008)
  5. L Packer, The Antioxidant Miracle Wiley (1999)
  6. HN Bhagavan, Hemmi and RK Chopra, Coenzyme Q10: absorption, tissue uptake, metabolism and pharmacokinetics, Free Radical Research 40 5 445–453 (2006)

Szilvia Hickman is senior vice president of Szép Élet, exclusive distributor of ilike organic skin care and Purée Organics.

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Treatment How-to: Free Radical-fighting Facial

Cost: $85

Duration: 60 minutes

Contraindications: Clients who are allergic to the ingredients in this facial and those who use tretinoin should not receive this treatment.

Equipment and supplies needed:

Treatment table

Warm towels

Gauze cloth

Products needed:

Cleansing milk containing grape seed and OPCs

Toner infused with natural vitamins and minerals

Exfoliator containing natural ingredients, such as corn meal, sulphur or enzymes

Mask with bioflavonoids, polyphenols and pectins

Antioxidant-rich serum

Moisturizer formulated with OPCs

Physical, biochemical sunscreen

Step 1: Have the client complete a client intake form in order to evaluate her needs. Lead her to the treatment room and ask her to put on the wrap and get under the sheets, face up. Leave the room to allow for her privacy, and return in a few minutes.

Step 2: Apply warm towels to the décolleté and the face to prepare the pores. Be sure to include the neck in your treatment; it is often neglected and, as a result, it shows aging faster.

Step 3: Cleanse the skin with a cleansing milk containing antioxidant-rich grape seed and OPCs. Apply a small amount of cleanser over the entire face and neck area, and, using your fingertips, massage it in gently for 30–60 seconds, moving in circular motions. Then, wipe it off with a warm, damp face towel. Repeat this step if necessary, or perform a second step cleansing with a deep cleansing product.

Step 4: Next, apply a toner to the skin with a gauze cloth or spritz the face lightly to remove any excess product and to balance the natural pH of the skin. Use a toner infused with natural vitamins and minerals to rejuvenate the skin, evening out the pores and readying the skin for better moisture absorption.

Step 5: After the skin is cleansed, gently apply a thin layer of exfoliator to the skin, leaving it on for 15 minutes. Look for an exfoliator containing natural ingredients, such as cornmeal, sulfur or enzymes that work to remove dead keratin cells, stimulate blood circulation and soften the skin.

Step 6: Apply a mask to revive collagen fibers. Seek out masks that are formulated to bring more oxygen to the skin as they detoxify, reduce inflammation and stimulate cell reproduction. Most masks should remain on the face 20 minutes for maximum results, or until dry. Natural key ingredients to look for include bioflavonoids, polyphenols and pectins.

Step 7: Apply an antioxidant-rich serum, such as one containing grape seed oil. This is ideal for fighting free radicals, and the decreased elasticity that is associated with aging, dehydrated or tired skin. Grape seed oil is packed with antioxidants, helps firm the skin by stimulating collagen production, and serves as a key ingredient in hydrating, softening and leaving the skin silky smooth.

Step 8: Apply a thin layer of moisturizer to the skin. Use a moisturizer formulated with OPCs to help renew the collagen fibers, and regenerate the epidermis and the connective tissues. Look for products with grape seed, red grape skin and pine bark, which are known to be the three most potent OPC sources. Skin will feel toned, smoothed and strengthened by the antioxidant ingredients delivered from each step.

Step 9: The final step in the natural free radical-fighting facial is sun protection. Use a sunscreen with physical—such as non-nano titanium dioxide—and biochemical—antioxidant-rich herbs and vegetables including tomato and carrot—sunscreen effects.

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