expert opinion

Antioxidant micronutrients in the prevention of skin aging

April 1, 2014


Prof. Jürgen Lademann, Center of Experimental & Applied Cutaneous Physiology, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany.

“A high concentration of free radicals can cause oxidative stress conditions, which in turn give rise to cell damage, skin aging (1) and skin cancer (2, 3). Free radicals seem to play a major role in skin-aging processes due to the destruction of collagen and elastin fibers, as well as DNA damage. Efficient sunscreens provide a double-track protection system against skin damage as they contain antioxidants in addition to UV filter substances (4). The antioxidants are also able to protect the skin in the visible and infrared spectral ranges, where sun radiation induces the formation of (more than 50%) of free radicals. The antioxidative network of the human skin consists of different antioxidants, such as vitamins (ACDE), enzymes (superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase, etc.), carotenoids (beta-carotenelycopenelutein and zeaxanthin, etc.) and other substances (such as melanin, flavonoids, lipoic acid, uric acid, selenium, coenzyme Q10, etc.) which act as a ‘protective chain’, signifying that different antioxidants possess a synergistic effect and protect each other from direct destruction in the processes of neutralizing free radicals (5). Carotenoids are powerful lipophilic antioxidants present in the human organism and especially in human skin (6), which can serve as a marker substance of the antioxidative network of the human skin. Moreover, the bioavailability of carotenoids inges- ted in a denatured matrix together with a lipid-containing carrier substance is much higher in comparison to the bioavailability of carotenoids obtained from raw fruit and vegetables.

An area of application for topically applied antioxidants is the anti-aging sector. A clear advantage of the topical application of antioxidants for the skin is that the antioxidants are delivered directly to their target structure, the skin surface, which represents the barrier to the environment, without any loss due to metabolism. However, penetration of such antioxidants into the deeper skin layers is inefficient and almost negligible, and protection is only provided for areas where the substance was applied. In contrast, systemic application (intake via food and/or supplements) enables an accumulation in the complete organism including an increase in antioxidants on the skin surface and in deeper layers of the skin. In systemic applications the protective effect unfolds slowly, but can be detected for a period of several weeks after systemic application of the antioxidants is discontinued. In contrast, topical applications of antioxidants increase the protective potential of the skin immediately. However, the enhanced protective potential declines to its original value within 24 hours unless the topical application is repeated; the quick decline being due to textile contact, washing and showering as well as desquamation of one cell layer of corneocytes per day.

Stress factors – such as irradiation, environmental conditions, illness, inflammation, smoking and alcohol consumption – also produce free radicals in human skin, and thus may decrease the antioxidant level in the skin. A balanced diet – rich, for instance, in fruit and vegetables – is able to increase the antioxidant level of the skin. High levels of antioxidants in the human skin act as an efficient anti-aging strategy, as recently demonstrated (7). Healthy volunteers aged between 40 and 50 years were investigated for the relation of the antioxidant concentration in their skin to skin roughness. Skin roughness was determined by the depth and density of furrows and wrinkles. It was found that individuals with a high concentration of antioxidants in their skin exhibited a lesser degree of skin roughness than individuals of the same age with lower antioxidant levels (8). An additional study investigated the improvement in the skin surface structure after systemic intake of antioxidants and/or the topical application of creams containing antioxidants (9, 10). It was shown that after systemic application of antioxidants, their concentration was increased in the skin. The results obtained concord with other studies, where an increase in antioxidants was found after antioxidant-rich supplementation. After completion of antioxidant treatment, the concentration of antioxidants was detectable in the skin for a longer period of time than after topical application (11).

In addition, antioxidants can have a positive influence on the medical treatment of various diseases, inclu- ding different types of cancer (5). Positive results could be attributed to antioxidants in their naturally balanced compositions and concentrations. Studies investigating the application of synthetic or extracted antioxidants as medical treatments have generated controversial results (12). While a number of studies indicated positive effects after the systemic application of antioxidants – mainly in physiological concentra- tions – studies with high doses of antioxidants (seemingly exhibiting pro-oxidant properties) reported harmful effects. In contrast to the application of antioxidants in supportive medical treatment, the application in cosmetic products (e.g. anti-aging creams) has not produced any harmful effects – apart from a small number of allergic reactions described in several studies (5). Such findings are not surprising as cosmetic products are developed for continuous long-term application with lower antioxidant concentrations than products intended for medical treatment.

In conclusion, the best protection strategy against the harmful action of free radicals is a well-regulated lifestyle with low stress conditions and balanced nutritional habits, including antioxidant-rich food. Taking into consideration the unwholesome nutritional habits of the general population combined with careless exposure to UV radiation, the importance of a regular intake of antioxidants in physiological concentrations has to be emphasized. Recently developed non-invasive techniques for the in-vivo detection of antioxidants and free radicals in the human skin (12) may considerably influence people’s nutritional habits and stress behavior and open up new prospects for the development of antioxidant products.”


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2. Sander C. S. et al. Role of oxidative stress and the antioxidant network in cutaneous carcinogenesis. Int J Dermatol. 2004; 43:326–335.

3. Palmer D. M. and Kitchin J. S. Oxidative damage, skin aging, antioxidants and a novel antioxidant rating system. J Drugs Dermatol. 2010; 9:11–15.

4. Schroeder P. et al. Photoprotection beyond ultraviolet radiation – effective sun protection has to include protection against infrared A radiation-induced skin damage. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2010; 23:15–17.

5. Darvin M. et al. Effect of supplemented and topically applied antioxidant substances on human tissue. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2006; 19:238–247.

6. Stahl W. and Sies H. Antioxidant activity of carotenoids. Mol Aspects Med. 2003; 24:345–351.

7. Thiele J. J. et al. The antioxidant network of the stratum corneum. Curr Probl Dermatol. 2001; 29:26–42.

8. Darvin M. E. et al. Cutaneous concentration of lycopene correlates significantly with the roughness of the skin. Eur J Pharm Biopharm. 2008; 69:943–947.

9. Heinrich U. et al. Antioxidant supplements improve parameters related to skin structure in humans. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2006; 19:224–231.

10. Darvin M. E. et al. Topical beta-carotene protects against infra-red-light-induced free radicals. Exp Dermatol. 2011; 20:125–129.

11. Darvin M. E. et al. Dermal carotenoid level and kinetics after topical and systemic administration of antioxidants: enrichment strategies in a controlled in vivo study. J Dermatol Sci. 2011; 64(1):53-58.

12. Lademann J. et al. Uptake of Antioxidants by Natural Nutrition and Supplementation: Pros and Cons from the Dermatological Point of View. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2011; 24:269–273.