With new products, brands, and categories popping up every day, beauty can be a bit overwhelming. Back to Basics is our rudimentary beauty series that serves as your crash course on the science behind some of the best formulations in the game.
By now, you’re likely aware of many wonderful things antioxidants can do for the skin. From fighting skin-aging free radicals and protecting against pollution and UV rays to brightening, retexturizing, and smoothing out the complexion, their benefits are endless. Vitamin C, retinoids, and niacinamide may be some of the buzziest antioxidants of the moment, but there’s another lesser known powerhouse ingredient that’s certainly worthy of praise: ferulic acid.
This plant-based compound not only offers all of the above perks, but it’s also known to boost the efficacy of the other ingredients it’s paired with. But to start: what exactly is it? According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman, ferulic acid, otherwise known a hydroxycinnamic acid, is an antioxidant compound that’s naturally found in the cell walls of certain fruits and grains, namely apples, citrus, oats, rice, and bran — though, as he points out, it can also be created in a lab.
Its main benefit is that it neutralizes free radical damage to the skin, which is the main cause of many common skin woes. “Free radical damage can come from UV light, infrared radiation, or pollution, all of which are damaging to the skin and can accelerate signs of aging like dark spots, fine lines, and wrinkles,” explains Dr. Hartman.
Because ferulic acid combats these free radicals (three types of them, in fact, while many other antioxidants only target one or two), board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick counts it as an effective treatment for fading spots and discoloration and smoothing out pesky fine lines and wrinkles. “It’s also been shown to reduce inflammation by reducing oxidative damage,” she says. Cosmetic chemist and founder of Freelance Formulations Vanessa Thomas adds that it’s also been shown to protect the skin from sun damage by actually absorbing some UV rays, as well as firming up its appearance.
However, you’ll rarely see a product just toting ferulic acid as its sole active. Because it also has the ability to ramp up the benefits of other ingredients, ferulic acid is typically combined with other antioxidants. More on that, below.
What To Pair With Ferulic Acid
On its own, ferulic acid offers plenty of antioxidant benefits. However, as Dr. Garshick points out, it’s often combined with other ingredients, namely antioxidants, as it helps to both stabilize and boost their effects. Plus, according to Thomas, it has a lower molecular weight which allows these ingredient combinations to better penetrate the skin. Ferulic acid is most commonly paired with vitamin C, vitamin E, retinol, and resveratrol, an antioxidant polyphenol compound typically derived from grapes and other berries.
Probably the most popular combination is ferulic acid with vitamins C and E, two notoriously difficult ingredients to stabilize, which work together synergistically to protect against free radical damage. Ferulic acid not only increases their antioxidant benefits, but also better stabilizes them. For example, Thomas points out that vitamin C typically degrades quickly due to sunlight, which essentially renders it ineffective. “A study has shown that ferulic acid has properties that protect vitamin C from UV rays, and the reduction of UV damage from sunlight can allow for increased effectiveness,” she says.
When it comes to retinol, Dr. Hartman says that its exfoliating properties combined with the neutralization of free radicals by ferulic acid are what make them a great pairing. As for resveratrol? It calms the skin while improving skin texture and tone, and together with ferulic acid it also offers pretty powerful protection against free radicals.
With the above in mind, you can combine a ferulic acid product with any other vitamin C, E, and resveratrol products to reap maximum benefits, so long as each product’s full ingredient list will work well together. As for retinol, you wouldn’t want to use it with a ferulic acid product that contains vitamin C, as the retinol can destabilize it and cause unwanted redness and irritation.
Additionally, Dr. Garshick doesn’t recommend pairing ferulic acid with exfoliating acids such as AHAs or BHAs, as they can alter its pH and impact its efficacy. There are products on the market — such as chemical exfoliators and peel pads — that do combine these ingredients together in the same formula, but it’s not advisable to use separate products in tandem.
And, of course, always pair ferulic acid — as well as any other antioxidant — with SPF. “Taking the time to use a product with ferulic acid won’t give you the results you’re looking for if you don’t protect your skin from the sun,” says Dr. Hartman.
How To Use Ferulic Acid
Ferulic acid is most commonly formulated as a serum, but it can also be found in creams and lotions. How and when you use it will depend both on the formula as well as what other ingredients it's combined with.
“Because it’s an antioxidant, I recommend using ferulic acid in the morning to provide protection from free radical damage throughout the day,” says Dr. Garshick. “That said, it’s considered safe to use twice daily. If it’s formulated into a serum or cream, it’s best applied after cleansing, but before moisturizing. This is because it’s best to apply products in the order of thinnest to thickest [in order to best absorb].” In the case of retinol products containing ferulic acid, these are best applied at nighttime as sunlight is known to destabilize retinol.
Who Is A Good Candidate To Use Ferulic Acid?
For the most part, ferulic acid plays nicely with all skin types and skin tones, and most folks won’t experience any side effects from using it. However, because it can be derived from various fruits and grains, Dr. Hartman recommends that those with related food allergies err on the side of caution. “If you have allergies to apples, cereal grains, bran, or oatmeal, you should talk to your dermatologist about whether or not ferulic acid is right for you,” he advises.
Allergies aside, it’s still a potent active, and both Dr. Hartman and Thomas recommend patch testing a product first, waiting a full 24 hours to see if your skin reacts in any way. “If you don’t [have any reaction], you should be in good shape to use the product. If you have any kind of reaction, don’t use it — and talk to your dermatologist,” says Dr. Hartman. Additionally, Dr. Garshick explains that because ferulic acid is often combined with other ingredients, it may be possible to experience sensitivity or irritation as a result of another ingredient, so be conscious of the entire ingredient list of the ferulic acid product you choose.
Overall, ferulic acid is a potent antioxidant with many free radical-fighting, anti-aging, and texture- and tone-improving benefits that make it well worth incorporating into your skin care routine. Ahead, seven of the best ferulic acid products on the market to shop at every price point.
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