Free Radicals: What Are They and What Do They Do?
One of the first things we learned back in the day in science class is that everything in the world is made of molecules. Me, you, and the air around us is all made of molecules. So, I think it’s safe to say that molecules are vital to life. Molecules, as you might know, are made of atoms, and atoms are made from pairs of electrons. Sometimes, an atom can be missing an electron – and that’s when free radicals come into play.
To avoid damage to our skin, protecting ourselves from free radicals is step one. While there isn’t much we can do to stop them from coming into contact with our skin, there are ways we can form a protective skin shield to neutralize them. If you want to learn how to take the necessary precautions and put your skin first, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about free radicals and how to combat the damage they can cause.
What Are Free Radicals?
Every day, our bodies are under attack from oxidative stress that is caused by exposure to free radicals. You know when you cut open an apple or avocado and it turns brown later on? That’s oxidation! Free radicals are the natural byproducts of chemical processes, such as metabolism, so they’re a part of our normal biological processes.
You can think of them as waste products from various chemical reactions in the cell. When these waste products build up over time, we can cause damage to our bodies. Substances that produce free radicals can be found in the food we eat, the medicine we take, the air we’re surrounded by, and even the water we drink. More specifically, they can be found in:
- Fried foods
- Tobacco smoke
- U.V. rays
- Air pollutants
Now – there is nuance to everything, right? While there are harmful effects, they are also essential to life. The body’s ability to turn air and food into chemical energy relies on free radicals; plus, they are a crucial part of the immune system by floating through our bodies and attacking anything that doesn’t belong.
For instance, the free radicals that our bodies produce can fight external dangers like viruses and bacteria. It’s important to remember that oxidative stress occurs when there are too many of them in the body and too much cell damage, as oxidative stress is associated with the damage of proteins, lipids, and nucleic acid (1). Why is this bad? Because collagen and lipids form our skin’s structural layer and protective barrier that we need to care for.
How Do They Affect the Skin?
In the oxidative stress process, oxygen in the body splits into single atoms with unpaired electrons. Since electrons like to come in package deals, free radicals scavenge our bodies to find other electrons to pair with. This causes damage to our cells, proteins, and DNA (1).
Free radicals can not only affect the skin, but they are also associated with cancer, atherosclerosis, ulcers, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, and all inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and lupus. In terms of the skin, one of the most well-known links between free radicals and the skin is premature aging or aging in general. In fact, aging has been defined as a gradual accumulation of damage from free radicals since they can damage DNA’s instructional code, causing our new cells to grow incorrectly.
Skin damage caused by free radicals can manifest in several different forms. It can show as hyperpigmentation, or changes in skin color, or even as loose, sagging skin due to the skin weakening. Overall, free radicals can cause brown spots, dull skin, roughness, wrinkles, broken blood vessels, damage to our skin’s elastic fibers, and a breakdown of our collagen (2).
How Can You Protect Your Skin
You’ve probably heard us say it before, but just in case you missed it: antioxidants are key to keep free radicals in check. Antioxidants are molecules in cells that prevent free radicals from pairing with other electrons and causing damage. This is because antioxidants can give an electron to a free radical without becoming destabilized themselves, which halts a free radical chain reaction. They’re amazing natural substances that can clean up free radical waste in cells and can be found in plenty of skincare products and even in the food we eat. If you’re looking to increase your antioxidant intake, commonly-known antioxidants include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- CoQ10 or Ubiquinone
It’s SUPER crucial to take in antioxidants when you can, as our body produces an insufficient number of antioxidants on its own. To put it in perspective, oxidative stress actually occurs when there is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants. More specifically, it’s when there are too many free radicals in the body and not enough antioxidants. To improve your daily antioxidant intake, you can turn to your diet, as antioxidants can be found in abundance in nutrient-rich foods, such as colorful fruits and vegetables. Check out these delicious and nutritious foods and beverages that can help us achieve a glowing and healthy complexion:
- Green Tea
Another fact that is important to note here is that free radical damage and oxidative stress can come from too much exposure to the sun. That’s why wearing SPF every single day should become a habit if we want to avoid free radicals from affecting our complexion. Applying topicals, like SPF or antioxidant-heavy skincare products, are great for helping us fight skin damage.
Lots of products on the market today are formulated to fight free radicals and usually come with labels that say so. When looking for new products, check out non-comedogenic creams, serums, and lotions with antioxidants that can neutralize the molecules and prevent them from potentially causing premature aging and other damage (3).
Written by Selena Ponton