Free Radicals and Skin Care


When talking about healthy, vibrant looking skin, you may come across the buzzword, “free radicals” in beauty articles or over delightful conversations about the latest beauty trends. If you’re baffled by the word, don’t be because not all of us remember details from chemistry or biology in our education. In this article, we will help you understand why free radicals are a crucial issue in the health and beauty of one’s skin, so pay attention.

What are free radicals?

Let’s get back to the basics. We are all made of atoms, which make up cells – the basic unit of life. Our cells make tissues, and tissues make organs, and a collection of organs make up a human being.

In the case of free radicals, our concern is with the atoms that make our cells. An atom is made of a nucleus which consists of protons and neurons, and electrons which can be thought of as circling the nucleus like planets circle the sun.

These circling electrons of different atoms pair up to form bonds that hold atoms together in molecules, so take one of these electrons out, and things would go wonky!

Normally, the bonds don’t split and leave a molecule with an odd, unpaired electron, but when they do split, the resulting fragment is a very unstable “free radical”. It will react quickly with other compounds, trying to capture the needed electron to regain stability. When the attacked molecule loses its own electron (a process called “Oxidation”), it becomes a free radical too. This process will turn into a chain reaction causing oxidative damage and disruption of a living cell.

This oxidative damage causes biological organisms to age. The free radicals turn the oils of our skin rancid which in turn damages the collagen in the skin. Collagen is the protein in fibers that serve as the structural support of our skin, so free radical damage will contribute to skin laxity. Free radicals can also damage cellular DNA, causing skin cancer.

So, what generates free radicals? Anything that will knock electrons out of orbit, such as ionizing radiation (x-rays and ultraviolet light), or various environmental toxins which themselves may contain free radicals that may react with our tissues (cigarette smoke and herbicides are an example). However, some free radicals arise normally during metabolism. and sometimes the body’s immune system’s cells purposefully create them to neutralize viruses and bacteria

How do you combat free radicals?

Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, protect against the destructive effects of free radicals. They neutralize them by donating one of their own electrons, ending the “attacking” reaction. Now, you may be asking yourself, “well, if they gave up an electron, aren’t they a free radical too?” The answer is “No”. Anti-oxidants don’t become free radicals because they have electrons to spare, so they don’t need to steal from their neighbors. They act as lifeguards, helping other cells by donating a life-preserving electron. They ultimately help prevent cell and tissue damage that could otherwise lead to disease.