Free Radicals: What are they?
Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are missing an electron. This makes them incomplete, and they end up stealing the electrons they need from your healthy tissues, causing damage referred to as 'oxidative stress'. When free radicals go on the rampage, looking for those missing electrons, it can affect your skin, especially the sensitive tissues of your face.
Free Radicals: Where do they come from?
Everyday bodily processes like breathing, food digestion and exercise break down oxygen for use by the body, creating free radicals. This process is called oxidation and, while it's a normal part of life, there are steps you can take to keep your skin from suffering from the oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Diet, supplements, and lifestyle all have a part to play in limiting damaging molecules, and health and beauty products also help.
We all know that exercise is good for you. However, it also creates a playground for free radicals. On the other hand, regular exercise builds up your body's defenses against the damage caused by free radicals. That's because antioxidants are also created during physical activity, and they give the free radicals their oxygen 'fix', keeping them from grabbing free electrons willy-nilly and causing damage.
Unfortunately, there are skin-damaging free radicals that are always present, regardless of our lifestyle choices. Atmospheric pollution is one source of free radicals that can cause damage to skin, and cigarette smoke is another. Consumption of alcohol and fried foods has even been linked to an overload of free radicals. Household cleaners can contain chemicals that create them, and the ultraviolet rays of the sun are a major culprit.
What's a free radical chain reaction?
A free radical chain reaction occurs when free radicals take electrons from healthy cells. Each of these cells starts looking for a replacement electron, often stealing one from a healthy cell, just like the free radicals that started the process. Every time a cell loses an electron, it sustains damage that could even lead to cell death. Antioxidants can stop this chain reaction by providing the free radicals with needed electrons. The antioxidants are compounds that will remain stable even with a missing electron.
Free radicals have a role to play in our metabolism, so it's just when they're overabundant or unchecked that they cause this problem. The liver uses free radicals to help with detoxification, white blood cells use them to destroy bacterial and viral invaders, and they're used as messenger signals in the body. In extreme cases, though, unchecked free radicals may lead to cancer, especially if they affect the cell DNA.
What is an antioxidant?
Antioxidants are substances that benefit the body and all its organs, including the skin, because they neutralize excess free radicals. They can achieve this by donating an electron or by deactivating the free radicals. They also provide a boost to the immune system, the body's own defense against damage.
Major Beneficial Antioxidants
There are many antioxidants that help maintain health and fight excess free radicals, and vitamin C is one of the best when it comes to your facial skin. That's because it's useful as a topical, or directly applied, strengthener for skin. The epidermis, or skin, normally contains vitamin C, but aging and atmospheric pollutants can deplete the amount you need to keep it healthy.
One of the main ingredients in a skincare routine is a vitamin C serum that will give your skin what it needs to fight free radicals. Serums containing up to 20 percent vitamin C have been shown to be the most effective at allowing your skin to absorb the vitamin. Exfoliation of the skin prior to adding a vitamin C serum also allows it to penetrate better, distributing it to the upper and lower layers of the epidermis.
Vitamin C neutralizes free radicals created by the UV rays from the sun. It's not a sunscreen, though, since it doesn't absorb the rays, just protects against some of the damage they cause. Sunlight decreases the available vitamin C in your skin, so it's vital to have enough when you're spending time outdoors.
Another benefit of vitamin C is its ability to replace collagen in damaged tissues. Collagen lends support and firmness to skin, giving it a smooth appearance. When collagen is replenished, it can minimize wrinkling of the skin, especially in the facial area. Studies have revealed that regular use of vitamin C on the skin can "decrease wrinkling, reduce protein fiber damage, decrease apparent roughness of skin, and increase production of collagen."
This vitamin is another skin defender and wrinkle fighter, because it's lipophilic, which means it attracts fat molecules. There's a natural layer of fat in the skin of your face that gives it a smooth, even texture, and vitamin E congregates there, keeping lipids in place. It's also a free radical fighter like vitamin C, and it even absorbs UV rays.
To keep your skin from premature aging, you'll want to start with an eating plan that gives you all of the wonderful skin-protecting vitamins and compounds. Supplement this with a vitamin C serum that contains vitamin E, and you'll be covering your bases when it comes to healthy skin. If you feel you need a vitamin E supplement in your diet, here's a tip: a tablespoon of wheat germ oil contains 100 percent of the recommended daily requirement.
Vitamin E can help your skin stay moisturized because the lipid barrier protects against moisture loss. It's also an anti-inflammatory, promoting collagen regeneration in areas that suffer from acne blemishes and other damage. It can help scars heal more completely, making them less noticeable, and it can eliminate reddened areas and soothe itchy skin.
This substance is a component of vitamin A that gives fruits and vegetables a red or orange color. It's another antioxidant like C and E, and it shouldn't be confused with vitamin A because high levels of that vitamin can be toxic. Nutritionally, eating a variety of foods that include those high in vitamin A will provide the body with enough beta-carotene to provide antioxidant support.
Medical researchers believe that oxidative stress is a major factor in cognitive decline, and there's some evidence that sufficient levels of beta-carotene can slow memory loss and confusion. Research also points to a beneficial effect on people's lung capacity as they age.
In skincare products and shampoos, you may see beta-carotene listed as 'pro-vitamin A'. Like vitamins A and C, it has some UV ray protection, and it can also even skin tone. The coloring makes it useful for adding tint to cosmetics, giving your face an antioxidant boost at the same time. It also has mild exfoliating properties, assisting with healthy cell turnover for your skin.
Also known as micro-nutrients, polyphenols are substances that pack a mighty antioxidant punch when it comes to free radicals. They're found in highly colored fruits and vegetables, and the same substances that give these foods their vibrant colors give the body a host of benefits. Polyphenols have been identified as prizefighters when it comes to combating oxidative stress, and they're likely to have an important role to play in preventing cancer, nerve damage, heart disease and immune disorders.
While fighting free radicals, polyphenols work to diminish inflammation and oxidative stress. Inflammation is key to many disorders in the human body, including skin problems like acne. That's why beauty products that contain polyphenols like ferulic acid are especially good for your skin. Ferulic acid also stabilizes the vitamin C and E in facial serums, protecting their effectiveness against sun damage.
The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of polyphenols and their effect in negating damage from UV rays make them strong defenders of healthy skin. Their antioxidant properties also give them the ability to guard against premature aging. Some other polyphenols you may find in skin products include:
- GTP – green tea polyphenols
- GSP – grape seed proanthocyanidins
- Silymarin – milk thistle
A trace mineral with powerful antioxidant effects, selenium helps in healing acne and protecting the body from the effects of heavy metals, among other benefits. Because it's so easy to get enough selenium in the diet, supplements aren't usually needed. Sardines, liver and Brazil nuts are high in selenium, and you can also find this skin-loving trace mineral in all of these foods:
- Sunflower Seeds
High levels of selenium can be toxic, so getting your selenium through food protects you from getting too much of a good thing. Smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol can lower your selenium levels, as can certain chronic digestive conditions like Crohn's disease or inflammatory bowel syndrome.
The skin's elasticity is better when you have sufficient selenium in your diet, and its anti-inflammatory properties are effective on acne, especially when combined with zinc. Minerals like selenium work with vitamins to deliver the nutrients you need to your skin. Selenium can also increase the body's available insulin, and it assists essential hormones in getting where they need to be.
The Best Protection for Skin
There are several ways that antioxidants protect skin from oxidative stress. Free radicals can attack the fatty acids that make up the lipids in your skin. This can cause wrinkles because lipids make up the natural fat layer of skin that gives it a plump, firm texture. Unchecked free radicals can also damage the collagen that keeps skin firm and tight. Luckily, antioxidants can help protect both fatty acids and collagen. That's why so many facial skin treatments contain the antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E and other organic compounds that have healing effects for skin exposed to oxidative stress.
You may often read that vitamin C helps vitamin E do its job of fighting free radicals. The way this works is that, once an antioxidant gives an electron away to stop a free radical, it becomes inert. But vitamin C has the ability to reactivate vitamin E, causing it to continue to work to protect your skin. Alpha-lipoic acid, a naturally occurring substance in the body, works alongside vitamin C to recharge the antioxidant benefits of vitamin E.
Your Antioxidant Skin Care Routine
For the healthiest skin possible, make sure that you're following a nutritious diet that includes the vitamin and antioxidant-rich foods we've discussed here. Then, line up your arsenal of skin care products to fight free radicals and nourish skin. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser in the morning and evening, and exfoliate twice a week. Apply your C-serum after washing your face and before moisturizing.
To help with cell turnover, apply a retinol-based skin product twice a week at bedtime before you apply eye cream and night cream. It's helpful to use a moisturizer that contains vitamin C on your face daily, but you still need to apply sunscreen religiously to avoid damage from harsh UV rays. Use a body lotion that contains vitamin E to fight sun damage, and it will also protect your skin from the drying effects of wind and sun.
You can care for your skin from the inside out by including the wonderful antioxidants found in foods. Polyphenols are beneficial for all body processes in addition to the antioxidant protection they provide for your skin, and they increase the effectiveness of skincare products. Creating a regular skincare routine that includes these antioxidants is a smart way protect your skin from unchecked damage by free radicals.