What Are Free Radicals and How Do They Affect Your Skin?

what is a free radical

Free radicals have become a popular topic of discussion lately in a variety of contexts, but most people have no idea what these are. My goal is to tell you what free radicals are and how they age skin. If you’re looking for ways to protect your skin’s health and appearance, it is important to first understand what free radicals are and why they can be so damaging to your skin and body.

Here is a brief overview of what free radicals are and how their opposites—antioxidants—can help to prevent and even reverse signs of premature skin aging. 

Free Radicals Explained

Although various elements can become free radicals, I like to use the example of oxygen to explain what free radicals are. In its stable state, oxygen contains an even number of electrons. When oxygen loses an electron, leaving it with 7 electrons instead of 8, it becomes an active free radical. Also called reactive oxygen species (ROS), free radicals are molecules that contain an uneven number of electrons. In this state, they are highly reactive and damaging to your skin and body. In order to stabilize themselves, free radicals scavenge (steal) electrons from other molecules around them through a chemical reaction known as oxidization. This process damages important structures like cell membranes, proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and even DNA.

Oxygen in its stable state has 8 electrons.


What Causes Free Radicals?

A large amount of the free radicals that are created within your body are caused by external factors like sun exposure, air pollution, cigarette smoke, pesticides, certain drugs, and poor eating habits. The bodies natural antioxidant defenses are constantly trying to neutralize new free radical molecules. If there are too many free radicals for your body to handle on its own, it can be at an increased risk for developing many different diseases and skin conditions, including inflammation and premature aging.

When an electron has been lost, oxygen has only 7 electrons and becomes a free radical (also called a “reactive oxygen species”)

Free Radicals and Diet

The ongoing onslaught of free radicals is one reason why it is important to eat antioxidant foods and use antioxidant ingredients on your skin such as blueberries, pomegranate, argan oil, green tea, and dark chocolate. Many antioxidant foods such as argan oil and green tea are also considered anti-inflammatory foods.  This is because free radicals can cause inflammation.

Free Radicals and Inflammation

Free radicals cause damage to cell structures such as cell membranes that can turn on various inflammatory pathways. For example, sun exposure causes free radicals and leads to the inflammation known as sunburn. Using antioxidants can help prevent inflammation.

Free Radicals and Skin Aging

Within the skin, proteins such as collagen and elastin are what provide the smooth, firm structure and elasticity characteristic of healthy and youthful-looking skin. When free radicals damage these proteins, your skin can develop signs of aging like lines, wrinkles, brown spots and sagging. Free radicals are one of the biggest causes of premature skin aging.

What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are the superheroes that can calm free radicals down and keep them from damaging other molecules. Antioxidants interact with free radicals and give them the electron they crave to stop the oxidization process. Once an antioxidant gives away it’s extra electron, it is useless in the fight against free radicals.  For this reason, you need as many antioxidants as you can get.

What Is the Best Way to Get More Antioxidants?

The human body is able to make some antioxidants on its own, including glutathione, ubiquinol, and uric acid. However, these are not enough to combat the large number of free radicals that we are inundated with.

The best way to give your body and skin extra antioxidants is to eat a diet full of antioxidant-rich foods and to use properly formulated skin care products that also contain antioxidant ingredients.

Some of the best foods to eat to increase your antioxidant intake are:

  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Pomegranates
  • Acai berries
  • Pecans
  • Walnuts
  • Red wine
  • Dark chocolate
  • Caffeine

Additionally, you can look for these antioxidant ingredients in topical skin care products:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Argan oil
  • Green tea
  • Resveratrol
  • Grape seed extract
  • Niacinamide

In Summary

Making sure your body has enough antioxidants to prevent, stabilize, and reverse free radical damage is one of the best ways you can help keep your skin healthy and youthful. This is as easy as eating more of your favorite fruits and adding a high-quality antioxidant serum or skin care product to your regular routine. For more information, check out our other educational videos on YouTube.

If you’re interested in learning more about antioxidants in skin care or which products might be right for your skin type, find an STS physician in your area to take the validated Baumann Skin Type Questionnaire.  Knowing your Baumann Skin Type will help you see if your skin is at a higher risk for wrinkles and will help you add antioxidants to your skincare regimen. To find products with antioxidants in them, click here.

March 23, 2018 Beauty, Skin Aging