Written by Dean Shaban

Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on June 26, 2023

What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are substances that protect your body from the effects of unstable molecules called free radicals. Free radicals develop when atoms in your body gain or lose charged particles called electrons.

Free radicals aren’t all bad. They play an important role in many biological processes including cell division. They also help cells talk to each other, and they help your body defend against infection.

But when too many free radicals build up in the body, they can do serious damage to cells. This may contribute to conditions like cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Antioxidants are found naturally in many fruits and vegetables and other foods, and can also be taken as supplements. They’re in some skin-care products, too.

Types of Antioxidants

People tend to talk about antioxidants as a broad category, but they’re actually more of a big family. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, and so are vitamin E, vitamin A, and beta-carotene. There are many more, each with their own benefits.

Other antioxidants include:

Antioxidants Benefits

Still, a diet high in fruits and vegetables is healthy for many other reasons. Foods with antioxidants are typically:

Antioxidants for cancer prevention

Antioxidants for eyes

Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is the most common cause of permanent vision loss in adults over age 50. It happens when the macula, which is deep in the back of your eye, begins to wear away. In time, it can lead to loss of your central vision field.

Antioxidants may help to lower your chances of AMD by up to 25%. If you already have AMD, they can help you keep more of your vision.

Vitamins C and E can lower the chance of cataracts. These are protein buildups that cloud the lens at the front of the eye, ultimately causing blurry vision. Antioxidants may also slow the progression of cataracts, letting people maintain better vision longer.

Antioxidants for heart health

There’s a lot of debate about whether antioxidants help lower people’s chances of heart disease. On one hand, research has shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower risks of heart disease and stroke. Early research has shown that antioxidants may be responsible for this benefit.

On the other hand, follow-up studies of antioxidant supplements have failed to show the same benefits. Some scientists believe that this has to do with the higher levels of antioxidants in supplements.

Getting antioxidants from foods may be the secret, but more research is needed to find out if there’s a real connection.

Antioxidants for skin

We need more research, but there’s some evidence that the antioxidant vitamins C and E have skin benefits. Studies have shown that a vitamin C formula applied to the skin might help:

  • Improve the appearance of wrinkles
  • Protect skin from ultraviolet ray (UV) damage from the sun when used along with broad-spectrum sunscreen
  • Make dark spots on the skin less visible

As an ingredient in moisturizer, vitamin E appears to help:

  • Make skin softer
  • Reduce moisture loss
  • Protect skin cells from sun damage

An antioxidant-rich diet, with plenty of fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, and fatty fish, also promotes healthy skin.

Antioxidant Foods

Different foods contain different antioxidant vitamins and minerals.

The antioxidant beta-carotene is common in orange foods like:

  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Squash
  • Pumpkin
  • Apricots

Some green leafy vegetables also contain high levels of beta-carotene, including:

  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Collard greens

These vegetables also contain high levels of the antioxidant lutein.

The antioxidant lycopene is in fruits and vegetables with pink and red or red-orange flesh. Examples include:

  • Watermelon
  • Papaya
  • Pink grapefruit
  • Tomatoes