A woman by the pool with oranges that contain antioxidant vitamin c to protect from UV damage

How Antioxidants Protect Against Sun Damage

It's clear that ultraviolet radiation in the form of UVA and UVB rays cause skin damage. But your skin has evolved ways to combat this damage, using compounds called antioxidants. How exactly do antioxidants protect us from sun damage, and what are the best ways to incorporate them? Here’s the lowdown.


3 minute read

Scientists have yet to discover all of the complex processes that occur when sunlight penetrates your skin, though one thing is clear: those rays cause damage. But your skin has evolved ways to combat this damage, using compounds called antioxidants.

So how exactly do antioxidants protect us from sun damage, and what are the best ways to incorporate them? Here’s the lowdown.


How does sunlight damage your skin?

Research is ongoing, but what we do know is that the various types of radiation emitted by the sun — ultraviolet, infrared, and the like — induce chemical reactions within the skin that produce free radicals. These free radicals are essentially unpaired electrons that cause all kinds of damage, including:

  • Cell membrane destruction
  • Interruption of enzymatic processes
  • Disruption of normal cell division
  • Blocking energy production
  • Destruction of DNA

Interestingly, our cells also produce free radicals as a byproduct of normal metabolic function — and some of them are critical for normal cell function.

What exactly causes sun damage?

In a perfect world, our skin maintains a delicate balance — or homeostasis — between the generation of free radicals and antioxidants. But when that balance is disrupted — say, by a day at the beach soaking up the sun — your body’s ability to manage all those chemical chain reactions becomes overrun.

That’s when we see sunburn (from UVB rays) and the beginning of long term damage (from UVA rays). Scientists are still learning all the ways that sunlight damages our skin, but it’s well known that changes occur on a number of levels:

  • Collagen destruction: fine lines and wrinkles
  • Melanin stimulation: dark spots
  • DNA damage: functional issues and skin cancers
  • Immune response: activating inflammation
  • Increased vascularization: visible blood vessels (aka telangiectasias, or spider veins)

How do antioxidants prevent sun damage?

Our bodies have evolved an intricate system — known as the antioxidant network — to keep free radicals in check. These antioxidants neutralize free radicals by either breaking them down or by interrupting the chain reactions that they cause.

Researchers have determined that antioxidant levels fluctuate before and after skin is exposed to UV light — proving their important role in protecting your skin. This is an oversimplification, but generally speaking, how much of the skin’s storehouse of antioxidants gets depleted by sunlight depends on:

  • Your baseline antioxidant levels
  • The severity and duration of UV exposure
  • How quickly you replenish your antioxidants

Some antioxidants fall more into the preventive category, meaning they’re key to have prior to exposure, while others act more like the cleanup crew, getting to work on post-sun damage control.

Which antioxidants prevent sun damage?

While studies show that eating a diet rich in antioxidants is key to maintaining skin health, we do have evidence that applying some of these compounds topically can also make a difference. Here’s a roundup of UV protective antioxidants you’ll often find in skincare.

Vitamin C

Commonly found in fruits and vegetables like kale, oranges and acerola cherries, vitamin C (aka ascorbic acid and its derivatives) has been extensively studied for its antioxidant prowess.

Sun protection benefits

  • Stimulates collagen production
  • Scavenges free radicals
  • Inhibits melanin production (melanogenesis)

SLMD formulations

Vitamin E

This oil soluble vitamin is found naturally in foods like almonds, peanuts and avocado. Also known as tocopheryl, it’s been shown to be instrumental in skin healing.

Sun protection benefits

  • Prevents damage to lipid molecules (aka lipid peroxidation)
  • Inhibits and reverses UVB-induced apoptosis (aka cell death from UVB rays)

SLMD formulations

Green tea

The leaves of green tea contain an antioxidant compound called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which has been shown to have numerous benefits for skin. On skincare labels, you'll often see green tea extract listed as camellia sinensis leaf extract.

Sun protection benefits

  • Scavenges free radicals
  • Reduces immunosuppression (aka helps your immune system)
  • Encourages DNA repair

SLMD formulations


Also known as vitamin B3, this water soluble antioxidant is found naturally in meats like liver, chicken and tuna, but also in avocados and peanuts.

Sun protection benefits

  • Strengthens the skin barrier
  • Encourages DNA repair
  • Inhibits melanin production
  • Scavenges free radicals

SLMD formulations

Dr Sandra Lee

Dr. Lee's Last Word

Incorporating antioxidants into your skincare routine is a great way to help prevent and repair damage from the sun. While it’s no substitute for being sun safe — like wearing SPF daily and staying in the shade when you can — ingredients like vitamin C and green tea extract have been shown to help your skin recover and slow down signs of photoaging.


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