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What are free radicals, and how do they cause our skin to age?

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This is a pertinent question to know the answer to, for anyone concerned about beauty, skincare and overall health. All aging comes down to free radical formation. And, almost all anti-aging is a fight against free-radical damage. So, what are free radicals, and how do they cause our skin to age in the first place?

See related on our blog: The best facial skin care routines for every age, broken down decade-by-decade

In this article, we’ll explain the science of free radicals, and their ‘good guy’ opposition: antioxidants.

A primer on free radicals, unstable molecules and oxidative stress

Free radical damage on cells oxidizing - diagram of oxidative stress

Without getting into the details of all chemistry and biology that goes into this subject, we’ll give you the simplified version on how free radicals are formed in our universe, and why they’re bad for us.

Free radicals are unstable molecules that are missing an electron. A stable molecule always has pairs of electrons, in twos. But when one of those electrons goes missing, thanks to cell damage, we have an imbalance. This imbalance creates an unstable molecule, called a free radical.

Free radicals are a problem because unstable molecules do not just accept their new ‘handicapped’ existence after being damaged. Instead, they go ‘crazy’ trying to find a donor electron (or they try to become a donor). They want to get back to ‘stability’ as fast as possible. Where, oh where, can they find a new pair?

Free radicals are mean little buggers: they can steal electrons from healthy, stable cells. Then, when those ‘victim’ cells lose their ‘stolen’ electron, they too become free radicals (or they die).

This cyclical process is called oxidation, or oxidative stress (since it starts with oxygen photons mutating into free radicals). It’s also a type of chemical chain reaction. In essence, this is exactly what causes aging – even from the moment we’re born. Though, too much of it can lead to cancer or chronic disease, and we don’t want that, obviously. So, how do we slow it down?

Diagram showing antioxidant giving free radical a donor electron

The free radical reaction cycle continues over and over, unless the damaged molecules get help from our favourite cell species: antioxidants. These very generous cells exist to ‘save the day.’ They give out electrons so that free radicals don’t have to ‘steal’ them from healthy cells. So, eat your blueberries and drink your green tea, folks!

You can see oxidation in ordinary things, like an avocado going brown, or copper changing to a turquoise colour (like the Statue of Liberty). Neat, huh?

But, oxidation is totally not cool science when it’s happening inside our bodies (even though we can’t feel it happening). We need our stable cells! We also need a large quantity of those stable cells, so they can regenerate to create new cells, which keep us young all over.

With too much oxidative stress, even our DNA and body’s proteins and fats can be changed or damaged. That becomes the source of pretty much any non-infectious disease you can imagine: cardiovascular disease, arthritis, inflammation, cancer and more.

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Where do we get free radicals from?

Infographic explaining where sources of free radicals

Free radicals come from many sources. We can’t escape them. They start as oxygen molecules that split into separate atoms, which are then missing an electron. That causes the ‘crazy’ cycle we explained above.

Technically, oxidation is a normal part of life – it’s how food is metabolized to give us energy, and how our body fights disease. But, strangely enough, free radicals need to be kept in check, before they take us over.

Pollution, fried food, medicine, smoking, alcohol, UV rays and even air can contain or create free radicals. These are considered ‘toxins’ to our body.

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We can’t stop all free radicals, but we can counter them with antioxidants and good habits

Guess what? As hopeless as all of this sounds, we can do something about free radical damage. We can live healthy lifestyles!

The foods we eat can contain sources of free radicals, but they can also contain antioxidants, such as vitamins. Minerals and nutrients count, too. Fruits, vegetables and plant-based foods like tea are all wonderful sources of antioxidants when ingested. For example, broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables contain isothiocyanates which help to detoxify the body. They can help to expel nicotine pollution and other carcinogens through urine.

You’ll often see marketing labels touting phrases like, “rich in antioxidants!” when they want you to buy a product. That can be a clue as to the foods that contain antioxidants. But don’t be swept up in the excitement. You might be fooled by their added ingredients. So, always read and understand labels. For example, a ‘green smoothie’ that has antioxidants in it may also be extremely sugary, which is not that helpful.

The key is to take in your food from a variety of healthy sources. Each type of antioxidant vitamin or mineral can perform different functions in your body, and ‘attack’ certain areas where your free radicals are waging ‘war’ on you.

Of course, it goes without saying that you should not sun tan, smoke or binge drink, as those activities can surely speed up the aging process caused by free radicals.

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Now, what about our beauty issues and skin damage? How do we use antioxidants for anti-aging effects?

Now the good part: how do we use our knowledge of free radicals and antioxidants to combat visible signs of aging on our skin? The positive news is that those facial creams, face masks and beauty treatments you’ve been getting were probably helping, in one way or another.

That goes especially if you were using topically-absorbed face serums that boasted Vitamin A, C or E. These are antioxidants that can help build up collagen in the dermal layer. That’s why they’re very widely used in skincare products for their anti-aging benefits.

Vitamin A is often listed as retinol, or its variants (e.g. retinyl palmitate). This ingredient in skincare helps to strengthen your dermal layer, which makes it great for enlarged pores or wrinkles. But, it also fights against pigmentation and uneven tone. Lastly, it helps to clear out your pores, making it excellent for acne.

Vitamin C is probably the most-used vitamin in skincare. It can be listed as ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THD), ester-C or other names. It works to lighten skin, making it good for uneven pigmentation. Though, it has anti-aging and hydrating properties as well. The only problem with Vitamin C is that it doesn’t last long in products and loses some of its properties when exposed to air. So, you’ll need to watch for expiry dates. This antioxidant is best when combined with other ingredients in skincare, unless you are using a potent product. The THD form is better able to penetrate the skin, and is more stable.

Vitamin E comes with names like tocopherol, tocopheryl acetate or tocotrienols. It is a great healer of skin, making it excellent for dry skin or skin that needs repair. It also defends against UV damage, so it can be found in some sunscreens. It can even help to fight cancerous cells, believe it or not. This vitamin has a lot of synergy with vitamin C, so if you find a product with both in them, you can get enhanced results thanks to their ‘team work.’

The other popular antioxidants used in skincare products include:

  • CoenzymeQ10 or coQ10 (ubiquinone) – this is great for fighting wrinkles and lines.
  • Vitamin B3 (niacinamide) – this is great for healing red tones and improving texture.
  • Polyphenols, also known as catechins (e.g. green tea extracts, curcumin, resveratrol from plants, etc.) – these help to prevent oxidative stress from free radical damage. They reduce inflammation and calm red skin, while preventing collagen breakdown.
  • Flavonoids – also a preventer of free radical damage, and good for rosacea.
  • Glutathione – aside from fighting signs of aging, this is helpful for dark spots.
  • Lycopene (a carotenoid) – found as a pigment-producer in red foods like tomatoes, this antioxidant helps to defend against sun damage by building collagen.

And the list goes on. Antioxidants are plentiful, so we can’t list them all here. But, the above are quite commonly used in good skin care products.

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Finally, it’s important to note a few things about antioxidants in skincare

As a last note, you should know that antioxidants can come from many sources and extracts not mentioned above. These include olive leaves, aloe leaves, pomegranate leaves, stevia leaves, licorice root, and more.

Antioxidants in highly-researched skin care products can be formulated at the molecular structure to perform certain tasks in the skin. So, there is usually a reason they are chosen from specific sources, and put into specific concoctions.

Most of the time, vitamins and other antioxidants work best when they’re helping one another. So, while you may like what you’re reading about one of the above-named antioxidants, it’s unlikely just one will do the trick for you.

For best results, look at what a product is designed to do, as its primary treatment. For example, if you have many dark spots, look for a skin brightening cream. If you have wrinkles and lines, look for a product made to tackle that issue, and so on. The scientists and lab researchers have probably already done the heavy lifting of figuring out what functions and types of antioxidants you need, so you don’t have to.

Remember that skin creams are not meant to be free radical fighters alone. They should also be helping your skin retain moisture, while not clogging pores. Hyaluronic acid may not be an antioxidant per se, but it is needed for that moisture balance, and to allow the antioxidants to do their job. So, look for a good, well-rounded skincare. Don’t just focus on antioxidants in your topical creams and serums.

And of course – stop smoking, avoid the sun, wear sun protection and eat healthy! Your entire lifestyle has an effect on your looks, too! No amount of antioxidants can replace prevention as your primary anti-aging solution.

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