You may have heard from many skin care products that “protect against free radicals”, insinuating that free radicals age the skin. There are also diets that specifically include foods that protect against free radicals in the environment. But what are free radicals and why are they harmful?
What are free radicals?
Free radicals are atoms, ions, or molecules that contain an unpaired electron. The unpaired electron makes them unstable and highly reactive. Free radicals are very unstable and try to attack the nearest stable molecule and capture the needed electron to gain stability. Many of these attacked molecules are DNA, proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids – all which are factors in looking young. When the “attacked” molecule loses its electron, it becomes a free radical itself, beginning a chain reaction. Once the process is started, it can cascade, finally resulting in the disruption of a living cell.
Normally, the body can handle free radicals, but if antioxidants are unavailable, or if the free-radical production becomes excessive, damage can occur. Of particular importance is that free radical damage accumulates with age.
Where do free radicals come from?
Hazardous environmental sources such as pollution, toxic metals, alcohol, cigarette smoke, radiation, industrial chemicals, and medications expose us to free radicals. Completely avoiding free radicals is impossible, and it’s wrong to say that eliminating all free radicals will keep us young forever. We need low concentrations of free radicals because they are beneficial to the human body. Your immune system uses free radicals to defend itself against pathogens. As in all things, proper balance is critical and problems begin when free radicals are wildly out of balance. An overwhelming amount of free radicals in your body leads to wrinkles, decreased physical capability, increased susceptibility to disease, and death.
How do I maintain a proper balance of free radicals?
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, ending the electron-stealing reaction. Antioxidants are unique because they don’t become free radicals by donating an electron – they are stable in either form.
The body naturally produces some antioxidants, like glutathione, ubiquinol, and uric acid. You likely ingest many others through diet or supplements. Some of the strongest antioxidants come from fruits and vegetables. Here are a few examples:
Found most abundantly in berries, eggplant, red cabbage, red grapes, and other richly-colored food plants, anthocyanins are purple-colored pigments common to all plants. They’re what make blueberries blue and raspberries red. Anthocyanins provide a broad range of health benefits.
Polyphenols are a group of several thousand phytochemicals with antioxidant properties. You often hear about the polyphenols in chocolate, but scientists are pursuing and publishing more and more research on the polyphenol called curcumin, the active curcuminoid compound in turmeric.
These polyphenol turmeric compounds have been evaluated for a myriad of health benefits. Curcuminoids protect and promote health by activating the immune system, protecting the brain, and influencing gene expression among other beneficial effects.
Beta-carotene is a reddish orange pigment found naturally in carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, mangos, spinach, squash, tomato, cantaloupe, peaches. Inside the body, it’s converted into vitamin A. It’s important to note that while beta-carotene itself is a powerful antioxidant, the results of some research has questioned whether vitamin A has any antioxidant activity at all.
Lycopene is a bright red pigment found in tomatoes, watermelons, and papayas. Like beta-carotene, lycopene is a carotenoid—a type of phytochemical with antioxidant properties. Lycopene contributes to a lower risk of prostate cancer, blood clots, and stroke.
Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, supports the immune system and good health all around. It also happens to be an antioxidant. Good sources of vitamin C include red and yellow bell peppers, kiwis, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries, and, of course, citrus fruits like oranges and lemons.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin known for its antioxidant properties. Sunflower and safflower oil, green veggies, nuts, and seeds are rich sources of this antioxidant. Vitamin E is also readily available in both multivitamins and vitamin-E supplements.
Selenium is an essential mineral and antioxidant that’s critical for thyroid health. Our bodies do not produce selenium, so we must get it from dietary sources or supplements. Brazil nuts, button and shiitake mushrooms, lima beans, chia seeds, and brown rice are all good food sources of selenium.
Incorporating antioxidants into your diet and skincare routine
Many common foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are rich in antioxidants and a carefully planned diet and skin care routine should provide all you need. A good rule of thumb is to make your diet 50% fresh vegetables and fruits. In your skin care, look for a serum that includes Vitamins A and E, such as Solscense.