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What are free radicals, and how do they affect your skin?

What to know about the unstable molecules that damage your skin, leaving you vulnerable to other health issues.
Free radicals
Don't worry! Certain skin care products can help shield your skin from free radical damage.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

It only takes a few hours walking around a big city to realize just how much pollution we're exposed to on a daily basis. And though it's easy to wash off evidence of the day with your favorite face wash, you can't erase the effects of all pollutants quite so easily.

Much like pollutants, free radicals are everywhere, but the harm they cause can be less noticeable — at least at first. At the same time, the damage they cause to your health and skin is no joke, so we consulted top skin care experts for a lesson on how to minimize it. Their insight might just make you reconsider your skin care routine.

What are free radicals?

You’ve likely seen the words “free radicals” while perusing skin care products, but what does this fancy term actually mean? If you're a science junkie, the way free radicals work is pretty fascinating.

“Free radicals are unstable molecules that can cause damage to our cells,” says Dr. Noelani González, M.D., director of cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai West in New York City. "What makes them unstable is that they are missing electrons from their outer shell. This causes them to search for other atoms or molecules that have these electrons, in order for them to feel whole again and become stable.”

Free radicals and your skin
Sunshine is good in doses, but be weary — it can trigger free radicals. Getty Images

How are free radicals harmful to the body and skin?

Due to their reactive nature, free radicals can wreak havoc on your skin and other cells in their quest to find an electron and feel whole again. “In order to stabilize themselves, free radicals try to bond to other atoms or molecules. This process results in oxidative stress which can damage DNA and other parts of the cell,” says Dr. Sejal Shah of New York City's SmarterSkin Dermatology.

Oxidative stress weakens living cells and tissues, and can leave you more vulnerable to certain health issues.

“When you leave an apple or avocado out on the counter, and it turns brown, that is an example of oxidation or deterioration caused by free radicals,” says Suzanne LeRoux, green beauty expert and founder of One Love Organics. “Free radicals have been implicated in diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”

In terms of DNA, free radicals' harm done there can cause acceleration in skin aging.

“External, premature aging is the biggest threat to skin,” adds LeRoux. “Since our skin is our largest organ, it is also vulnerable to free radicals.”

Free radicals and your skin
Air pollution and smog causes free radicals to proliferate.Getty Images

Examples of free radicals

If free radicals are potentially dangerous to your skin, it seems natural that you'd want to avoid them. But where are they found in the first place?

"Free radicals exist in our environment and can be generated from substances in the food we eat, the medicines we take, the air we breathe and the water we drink," says Dr. Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, a board-certified dermatologist based in Massachusetts.

Basically, free radicals can be anywhere, and you can be exposed to them in a number of ways. Your own body even produces them as a byproduct of your metabolism and as part of the natural aging process.

Hoping to avoid free radical damage? These are some common causes:

  • Air pollution
  • Sunlight (UV radiation)
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Pesticides
  • Poor nutrition
Free radicals and your skin
Antioxidants, which can protect you from free radicals, can be found in both food and topical skin care products.Getty Images

How do you get rid of free radicals?

Avoiding total exposure to free radicals is next to impossible, but you can take a few precautions to keep your skin (and the rest of your body) healthy. Avoiding the major free radical triggers mentioned above is a great start, but loading up on antioxidants can help, too.

“Antioxidants are compounds that can be found in food and in skin care that stop or delay damage to our cells,” Dr. González explains. “They work by binding to free radicals, which prevents them from binding to your healthy cells and damaging them.”

Think of antioxidants as free radical scavengers that help slow oxidation in its path.

“Squeezing lemon juice on an apple or avocado can significantly help reduce browning — that is the power of vitamins and antioxidants in action,” LeRoux adds. “When you take vitamins and antioxidants internally and/or apply them externally, you can counteract the damaging effects in the same way as squeezing a lemon.”

Free radicals and your skin
Look for skin care products with vitamin C, resveratrol or niacinamide.Getty Images

How to use antioxidants

Incorporating antioxidants into your daily diet and skin care routines is pretty darn easy.

For starters, eating a diet rich in blueberries, argan oil, green tea, dark chocolate (yes chocolate!) and even red wine can help shield you from the negative effects of free radicals. At the same time, topical antioxidants are sometimes better suited for preventing free radical damage to skin.

Dr. Shah recommends using serums. “They usually have a higher concentration of active ingredients and tend to penetrate more easily into the skin,” she says.

So what ingredients should you seek in an antioxidant skin care product? Here's the lowdown:

  • Vitamin C helps counteract UV free radical stress and pollution.
  • Resveratrol protects skin from UVB damage.
  • Niacinamide can be used for inflammation, redness, brown spots or pigmentation.
  • Other ingredients like vitamin E, turmeric, green tea extract, sea buckthorn and astaxanthin are also common antioxidant powerhouses.
  • Combination treatments that include multiple antioxidants are also common.

For the most effective free radical protection, Dr. González advises using an antioxidant serum both day and night. But why the double duty?

"We used to recommend antioxidants be used only in the mornings, as it would help fight damage caused by the sun’s UV rays and pollution throughout the day,” she says. "But now we’ve learned that using them at night as well is a must as it helps fight and repair the ongoing damage that was caused during the day and helps stimulate our own body’s antioxidants. So basically think of it as use them in the a.m. to prevent and in the p.m. to repair.”

Free radicals and your skin
Vitamin E, turmeric, green tea extract, sea buckthorn and astaxanthin also help thwart free radicals.Getty Images

Are antioxidants safe for everyone?

In general, there's no reason to avoid antioxidants, but some can potentially cause irritation to different skin types.

"Certain antioxidants, like those found in oils, vitamin C and E, can sometimes worsen conditions such as acne by clogging up your pores," Dr. González says.

L-asborbic acid is another potentially irritating ingredient that those with sensitive skin or rosacea should avoid. Also, the consistency of the serum can also influence whether or not your skin agrees with it.

"For example, if you have acne-prone skin, you want to opt for antioxidants in a lightweight serum. If you have severely dry skin, you want to opt for antioxidants formulated in a thicker cream," Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip says.

Top antioxidant serums to try

  • 1. TruSkin Vitamin C Serum for Face, $20, Amazon

This product will give your skin its daily dose of vitamin C.

  • 2. Neutrogena Hydro Boost Multivitamin Hydrating & Revitalizing Face Serum, $17, Amazon

A combination of vitamin E and hyaluronic acid works to quench parched skin and leave your skin feeling energized.

  • 3. 100% Pure Multi-Vitamin + Antioxidants Potent PM Serum, $59, Dermstore

This potent serum draws its power from a blend of vitamins C and E, niacinamide and retinol, which works to brighten skin and soften fine lines, according to the brand.

  • 4. Juice Beauty Antioxidant Serum, $48, Amazon

Fight back against free radicals with this vegan formula featuring vegetable hyaluronic acid, vegetable glycerin and vitamin B5.