Along with other great mysteries of our time, like the true nature of Hiddleswift and the Pokémon Go craze, acnejust isn't that easy to figure out. Sure, treating it seems easy enough at face value: Cleanse your skin every night, use products with salicylic acid, visit your dermatologist if you need to. But sometimes, it just doesn't work the way it should. You do everything right and still wake up to a new batch of pimples. What gives?
Topical treatments for acne have remained pretty much the same over the last few decades: Think salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and, more recently, retinol. They've probably stayed the same because we've been blaming breakouts on the same thing: A mix of sebum, dirt, and bacteria that clogs up pores.
But a recent study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology shows that there may be a new reason you're breaking out: Free radicals. Free radicals, which are molecules unleashed by UV light (a.k.a. sunshine) and air pollution, basically cause all hell to break loose on skin. They destroy collagen, form dark spots (another new discovery), and even damage DNA—and now they cause acne, too. But how? "Free radicals cause inflammation in the skin," explains Josh Zeichner, M.D., NYC dermatologist and director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mt. Sinai Hospital. "This blocks pores and leads to the development of pimples."
If free radicals are screwing with our skin, then antioxidants may help acne breakouts, since they both neutralize free radicals and help repair skin. But don't dump out your benzoyl peroxide just yet. Free radicals are just one key player in the acne game. "They're more of an exacerbating factor than than a primary cause," says Zeichner. Translation: If you've been dealing with acne your whole life, free radicals will step in to make matters worse. On top of that, most anti-acne ingredients have some sort of anti-inflammatory benefit, so they can still help. And it's smart to start using antioxidants anyway, since by fighting free radicals, they also help slow down the signs of skin aging.
There are a ton of options out there. So which antioxidants may help acne breakouts the most? Zeichner is a fan of Vitamin C, since it's been researched the most and commonly used to even out skin tones. DermaDoctor Kakadu C Intensive Vitamin C Peel Pads With Ferulic Acid & Vitamin C ($78 for 30, sephora.com) pairs it with two other antioxidants that work synergistically, giving you the most bang for your beauty buck. Green tea extract, a key ingredient in Olay Regenerist Luminous Tone Perfecting Cream ($29, ulta.com), is also a well-known antioxidant powerhouse. Clearer skin, right this way!