Totally (Free) Radical: Blueberries are a powerful antioxidant. Photo: JupiterImages

Antioxidants are a classic beauty buzzword - we're been hearing about them since the late 90s, yet still, they allude us.

What, exactly, are they, what do they do, and should we be using them?

Well, antioxidants are inextricably linked to another buzzword, free radicals, which are caused by factors like sun, pollution and even stress.

These free radicals attempt to bond with the skin cells, and in doing so cause a chain reaction that can bring on inflammation and damage to the skin's structural molecules, collagen and elastin.

This damage can lead to a wide range of skin problems, from age spots to wrinkles to more severe problems like skin cancer, antioxidant pioneer Dr. Nicholas Perricone told StyleList.

Antioxidants fight these evil free radicals, and prevent or slow down this type of damage.

The typical way we ingest antioxidants is through colorful fruits like blueberries and strawberries and leafy green veggies like kale and spinach. Nuts and spices like cinnamon and clove are rich carriers too.

In the early 90s, antioxidants made the leap from food to skincare when studies showed that antioxidants could also be absorbed for a more direct impact on skin.

Dr. Perricone made the discovery on a sunny morning while in grad school.

"I took a long run, and my face turned bright red from a painful sunburn. I thought that since vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, maybe it would act like an inflammatory and rapidly heal the burn. That night, I made a solution of Vitamin C tablets and patted it on my face. In the morning, the swelling and redness had gone down, if not disappeared entirely," he says.

But when vitamin C first hit skincare in the mid 90s, it was unstable and packaged in dark bottles and irritated most skin types. Luckily, today's antioxidants have rapidly evolved into more stable and gentle formulations that quickly produce results.

There's also a more exotic range of antioxidants to choose from, depending on the symptoms you want to target.

While antioxidants in any form are great to add to your skincare, especially look for them in serums and creams, since these formulations tend to be more stable and deliver the ingredients to your skin in the most direct and long-lasting way.

- By Melissa Goldberg