In recent years, doctors and researchers alike have come to believe in the free radical theory of aging. You’ve likely heard of free radicals as well, and it’s important to understand these chemical particles before delving into more about antioxidants.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that seek out electrons in our bodies and in our skin. Free radicals are the byproducts of our bodies’ oxygen-driven energy system, and they steal electrons from cells and collagen, in turn degrading and corroding our cells, which causes aging changes both within and on the surface of our bodies. When an electron is stolen, another free radical is formed, and the cycle goes on and on.
Free radicals work at the cellular level, destroying cell membranes, causing them to leak, and even penetrate the cells themselves causing damage to DNA. When DNA becomes unable to reproduce itself correctly, cellular communication gets garbled, and skin cancers develop. Free radical damage also causes our skin’s collagen to become brittle and less elastic, in turn making our skin feel less supple and appear aged. Antioxidants offer electrons that stabilize free radicals and stop the damage they cause. Although our bodies naturally produce antioxidants to fight free radicals, getting extra antioxidants topically and orally goes a long way for the health of our bodies and the beauty of our skin.
One of the most effective damage-preventing antioxidants is vitamin C, but it must be chemically transformed from its natural state in order to penetrate the skin and protect the cells. In addition to being a potent antioxidant, vitamin C is required for natural collagen formation. Supplementing the skin with this ingredient can help improve visible signs of aging.
Vitamin A is another powerful antioxidant, and it has skin-repairing abilities as well. Derivatives such as retinol and tretinoin (the active ingredient in Retin-A) suppress enzymes in the skin that degrade collagen while boosting the activity of our skin’s collagen-producing cells. As a result, this protective antioxidant helps to thicken skin, make it more supple, and restore a youthful appearance.
Antioxidants are team players, and they work synergistically with each other. Vitamins C and E are more powerful when combined. In order to reap the benefits of antioxidants, it’s best to use a variety, since different antioxidants also target different types of free radicals. Green tea, blueberries, coffeeberry and coenzyme Q10 are a few other free radical scavengers to look for in skin care products.
Many patients ask if eating these antioxidants is beneficial for the skin. Our bodies have a very high demand for antioxidants, and it’s been estimated that only about one percent of the antioxidant we ingest make it to the skin. This is why topical antioxidants are essential for skin health.
Free radicals are generated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so it’s important to apply them to the skin both morning and night. The UV rays emitted by the sun are a main cause of free radical formation (and this can be accelerated when certain products such as self-tanners and some sunscreen ingredients are exposed to the sun), so it’s imperative to apply an antioxidant product every morning under your sunscreen. Keep in mind this is not an excuse to skip the sunscreen since newer chemical UV blockers and physical UV shields like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide do not pose this free-radical problem—but the addition of antioxidants increases skin protection.
I believe that we have just begun to scratch the surface when it comes to the potential of antioxidants. The free radical theory applies not just to our skin, but to countless diseases of the body as well. The more we can manage free radicals, the better off we are from both a health and a beauty perspective.