Whether you prefer to ambush or make your wartime strategy known, fighting free radicals is critical to keeping your skin healthy and beautiful. So, what are these free radicals and why are they your skin’s worst enemy?
You may have heard of free radical damage and that it can accelerate the aging of your body and skin. Free radicals may even contribute to the development certain diseases such as dementia, heart disease and autoimmune disorders.
But what are free radicals, and how exactly do they cause this damage to the body and skin? Here’s what you need to know about free radical damage and how you can take steps to protect your skin from it.
What Are Free Radicals?
To understand the answer to the question “what are free radicals?”, we need to understand just a little about cell metabolism.
Cellular metabolism— the creation of new molecules and the breakdown of others—produces free radicals as a byproduct. Free radicals are unstable molecules, and when you don’t keep them in balance, they can accumulate and cause damage to other cells.
In a healthy body, free radicals would normally be neutralized by antioxidants. However, when there are too many these types of radicals and not enough antioxidants, free radicals can damage DNA, enzymes and even natural processes necessary to convert food into energy, which is what can cause premature aging and disease.
So, in short, free radicals aren’t necessarily “caused” by anything other than your body’s natural cell metabolism. However, certain lifestyle and dietary factors may increase the production of these radicals in the body, which can speed up aging and even cause disease.
Can You Prevent Free Radicals (and Free Radical-Related Damage)?
So now that you know the answer to the question of what are free radicals and how they can affect your body, you’re probably wondering if you can prevent them and the damage they cause.
Here’s the deal: Since free radicals are a natural occurrence, you can’t prevent them entirely. In fact, having a healthy balance between free radicals and antioxidants is necessary for your body.
Still, there are a few things you can do to keep a better balance and maybe even slow down aging caused by free radicals:
1. First, if you smoke or drink, know that both cigarette smoking and alcohol have been directly linked to free radicals.
2. Secondly, eat as healthy as you can. A poor diet, including one with lots of fried foods, can cause the production of more free radicals in the body (just in case you needed another reason to start eating more veggies!). Avocados are a good source of vitamin E and glutathione. Both vitamin E and glutathione are potent antioxidants that defend your body against free radical damage.
By getting more antioxidants into your diet (and your skincare routine), you may be able to reduce free radical-related damage. Antioxidants include our friend vitamin C, flavonoids and polyphenols (which are present in tea, leafy greens and fruits, among many other foods).
3. Thirdly, reduce your exposure to pollutants, such as air pollution, smoke and alcohol. Other substances, such as radiation and even certain medications, such as cancer drugs and anti-inflammatory medications, can produce more free radicals in the body as well.
While you may not be able to reduce your exposure to all of these, be mindful of their effects on the body (and your skin!) so you can be healthier and get more antioxidants.
How to Protect Your Skin From Free Radical Damage (and Treat Existing Damage)
Outside of reducing your exposure to toxins and eating healthy, is there a way to protect your skin specifically from free radical damage?
The answer is yes! With antioxidants and by protecting your skin from the sun, you can help prevent free radical damage and even treat existing damage to your skin.
And, some good news—if you already have a skincare routine, chances are you are already getting a lot of these antioxidants delivered right to your skin.
So which antioxidants are the most helpful?
Vitamin A (which you can find in retinol products and plant-based retinol products) and vitamins B, C and E are all excellent antioxidants for your skin. Again,Vitamin A can specifically help prevent aging while vitamin B3 and E are best for reducing inflammation. Vitamin C is ideal for hyperpigmentation, sun damage and preventing visible signs of aging.
Hyaluronic acid, ferulic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid and salicylic acid all act as antioxidants on the skin to help prevent free radical damage. Since there are so many, choosing one depends on your skin type. For example, while hyaluronic acid is perfect for dry skin types, salicylic acid tends to be better for oily or acne-prone skin, and glycolic acid is suitable for normal skin types.
Some plant compounds—including green tea extract and curcumin, the main component of turmeric—are excellent antioxidants to use for skin. The other plant compounds include licorice root extract, bakuchiol (a retinol alternative) and plant-based oils frequently used in skincare, such as rosehip seed oil.
Other Skincare Stars
Other stars in preventing oxidative stress from free radicals include:
- Coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant which has been shown to improve stressed skin by reducing free radicals and increasing antioxidants.
- Soy extract, which, thanks to its phytoestrogen effects, can help combat the effects of low estrogen in the skin, such as thinner skin, wrinkling and dryness.
- Astaxanthin, a pigment that gives some foods their red colors, including salmon, has antioxidant effects that can reduce these radicals and potentially help improve skin moisture while reducing wrinkles.
And, if you combine some of the above ingredients, such as vitamin C and E or green tea extract and vitamin B3, you get even more of the benefits than just using one of these ingredients alone. Remember that in nature, all of these nutrients work together to support health.
Take Our Free Skin Type Quiz
So now that you know what free radicals are, learn how to take the best care of your skin by taking our free skin type quiz! Understanding YOUR skin type will help you choose the best products, including ones with free radical-fighting antioxidants, to promote healthy, beautiful skin even as you age.