Free Radicals: they age your skin but you can slow them down

Zara Kassam BSc (Hons), MRes, PhD Researcher, Reviewed by Dr Haran Sivapalan

Free Radicals: they might sound like an anarchistic political movement but as Zara Kassam explains, they’re tiny molecules that do a whole lot of damage. But, there is help at hand.

Free radicals, antioxidants and oxidative stress have become trendy topics as far as health and longevity are concerned. Many people have heard that foods and skincare products with antioxidants protect us from free radical damage, which is responsible for many of the effects of aging on both the body and mind. But what exactly are free radicals, why are they bad and where do they come from?

Like everything in nature, our body likes balance and it’s continually aiming to achieve that – adjusting and readjusting, but sometimes things go wrong. Imagine a rusty iron pipe or an apple that you’ve taken a bite out of and it’s gone brown. Those are examples of oxidation – their atoms have been chemically altered and, as a result, both their structure and function have changed.


Rusting – an example of oxidisation in iron

The same happens inside your cells. Sometimes, however, there can be excessive or inappropriate oxidation. Environmental factors such as smoking, pollution, alcohol and UV rays from the sun can spark this process in our cells. Molecules within our cells can become inappropriately oxidised – they lose an electron, and become ‘free radicals’ – atoms which have an ‘unpaired electron’ and, as such, are highly reactive.

Far from being a positive revolutionary force for change, these free radicals (or “reactive oxygen species”) set off a trail of destruction. For lots of complicated reasons, atoms generally like to have electrons in pairs. Free radicals, however, have an ‘unpaired electron’. In a bid to rebalance themselves, they latch onto the neighbouring molecules to “steal” an electron from them. By stealing an electron however, they turn the unsuspecting molecule into a free radical as well. This new free radical then seeks out another electron from a neighbouring fat, protein or DNA molecule and the process repeats itself in what’s known as a “chain reaction”.


The anti-oxidant donates an electron to the free radical

As with the rusty pipe or brown apple, when these molecules become stripped of electrons and chemically altered, their structure and function changes. They are no longer able to participate in important cellular process and the cell becomes damaged. As the chain reaction continues and free radicals accumulate within a cell, it becomes more and more damaged. When DNA becomes damaged, the cell can develop mutations.

Free radical damage has also been linked to aging. According to ‘The Free Radical Theory’ of aging, aging occurs as free radical damage builds up over time.

Fortunately, the human body has defence mechanisms to protect against free radical damage. One of these defences is antioxidants. Antioxidants are molecules which happily donate an electron to the free radical, thereby neutralising it, ending the chain reaction, and rebalancing things. The antioxidants themselves don’t become free radicals by donating an electron because they are stable in either form; they help to prevent cell and tissue damage that could lead to cellular damage and disease.


What is “Oxidative Stress,” and how do Antioxidants fit in?

Normally, free radicals live in balance with antioxidants in the body. It’s when this balance is disturbed, due to low production of antioxidants and an accumulation of free radicals that the problems start. When the body is overwhelmed by the free radical action and the antioxidants can’t keep up, we’re in a process called ‘oxidative stress.’

High levels of oxidative stress affect every organ and system in the body and have been linked with everything from Alzheimer’s disease, arteriosclerosis, cancer and heart disease to accelerated aging, asthma, diabetes and leaky gut syndrome. Oxidative stress can also damage our skin.

There are two ways to slow down this oxidative stress. The first is to remove or reduce the externally generated source of free radical activity. Sources include:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Environmental pollutants
  • Radiation
  • Certain drugs, pesticides
  • Industrial solvents
  • UVA/UVB light

The more trauma you eliminate, the quicker you will see and feel improvement in your skin. Skin damage created by free radicals may appear in several forms.  Signs of damage include changes in skin colour, rougher texture and less supple skin that results from damaged elastic fibres as the free radicals break down the skin’s collagen.

If we want our skin to age more slowly, we need to keep oxidative stress under control, and with the right lifestyle and skincare, we can. Protecting your skin from factors such as exposure to UV light and pollution is a great preventative method in the production of free radicals. Regular exercise also helps.


The second method is to keep our levels of antioxidants topped up through a healthy diet. Some topically applied antioxidants, like those in skin care products, may also be of some benefit.

One major antioxidant is glutathione. It’s found in fruits, vegetables and meat and is produced naturally by the liver from the amino acids cysteine, glycine and glutamic acid. Other major antioxidants that have been identified include some you’re likely familiar with, such as vitamins A, C and E; beta-carotene; bioflavonoids; CoQ10; selenium; and zinc.

Some research shows that antioxidants in skin care can improve cell function, increase collagen production, improve elasticity, reduce sun damage to help create a healthier, perhaps younger, looking skin. These cosmetic improvements, however, take time, and it’s worth noting that only last for as long as you are using the products.


Which topical antioxidants show promise?

Although there has been a lot of media oversimplification and misreporting of the benefits of antioxidants, there is some evidence to suggest that antioxidants such as Vitamin A, C and E can have benefits for the skin. A healthy diet, regular exercise, minimising exposure to the sun, pollutants and toxins and using certain skincare products can all help to reduce skin damage from oxidative stress.

Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant. It is the most abundant water soluble antioxidant in the body and is a necessary component of tissue collagen production.  It protects the collagen in the skin and is necessary for new collagen production and wound healing.

orange-vitamin c-free-radicals-journal-harley-street-emporium

Vitamin E is the most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant in the body. One of the most efficient chain reaction breaking antioxidants available. The fat soluble vitamin E molecule is too large to penetrate the skin and significantly raise circulating levels, but application of vitamin E to the skin has been shown to be useful in reversing the sun damage.  There is mounting  evidence that vitamins C and E are enhanced in their antioxidant function when applied together.

Vitamin C and E creams target the top layers of the skin and are usually considered moisturising and protective, however serums containing smaller molecules of these antioxidants, tend to target the lower layers of skin that heal and regenerate cells.

Simple steps to help prevent free-radical mediated damage:

  • A cleanser based on lactic acid this will help keep the skin hydrated.
  • Topical antioxidants such as Vitamin A, C and E creams to inhibit oxidation.
  • Retinol Cream (to help build collagen fibres within the dermis helping restore elasticity and further improve fine lines)
  • Sunscreen (to provide protection from UV rays)





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