So free radicals… you’ve likely seen those words before…maybe in blogs and articles about your skin. Maybe even on skincare products. But exactly what are free radicals? How can they damage your ageing skin? Are they just a marketing myth? We’ve got the lowdown on everything you need to know about free radicals and your ageing skin, with the help of a skin therapist Victoria.
What is a free radical?
Free radicals are generated when your body is under oxidative stress. Oxygen splits into single atoms, with an uneven number of electrons. The thing with unpaired electrons is they need to be in pairs to be stable, so free radicals try to borrow an electron from healthy cells - they are highly reactive. What actually happens is that this chemical process just creates more unstable cells. This causes damage to your healthy cells. This can happen anywhere in the body and can change the DNA of cells, leading to links with cancer and other diseases.
What are Reactive Oxidative Species (ROS)?
This is another term that you may have seen on skincare products and education. Free radicals are a ROS (Reactive Oxidative Species), generated when oxidation makes changes to the cells.
How are free radicals generated?
From what we’ve learnt so far it would seem wise to avoid free radicals if at all possible. But it’s not that easy, as skin therapist Victoria explains:
“The way we generate free radicals is through exposure to UV radiation, pollution and environmental toxins but also through internal stress, even breathing. Just by being human beings we are exposed to free radicals, let alone our environment.”
So there are some free radicals we can stop from being generated but there are also some ROS that will naturally generate within the body.
Free radical formation in the world around us
ROS don’t just affect your skin and your body, they affect everything. A really great example is when you cut an apple and leave it out in the air. What happens? After a while it will turn brown. That is oxidation in progress. Think of the metal gate with the paint chipping off… what happens to the metal exposed to the air? It rusts. Both of these are clear examples of what happens when oxidation happens in the world around us.
What do free radicals do to your skin?
They damage your skin cells by changing their DNA This happens when they try to steal the extra electron. Rather than creating a stable cells, they actually create more instability which can lead to healthy cells dying. Skin therapist Victoria explains:
“Free radicals creates a lot of damage within the body. They can attach to and attack anything within the skin and body so any type of cell, lipid or oil within the skin. They can even interfere with or damage DNA - that’s how they increase your risk of diseases like skin cancer."
ROS directly affect the elasticity and plumpness of your skin, causing deepening lines and wrinkles and prematurely ageing skin. Free radicals can also increase sensitivity and have recently been linked to acne.
How do free radicals cause wrinkles?
One of the main reasons we talk about free radicals in skin care is because of the link to ageing skin. So how do free radicals cause wrinkles?
The first thing to say is that wrinkles are a natural part of the ageing process. ROS speed this process up - like with the apple turning brown or the gate rusting.
When ROS are generated, either through sun exposure or pollutants, the cells that are attacked are often the elastin and collagen in the skin’s layers. The chain reaction of free radicals trying to steal electrons causes those cells to be destroyed. When you combine that with the fact that, as you age, your skin naturally slows down in cell turnover and production, this can leave the skin slower to replace those damaged cells. Elastin is what keeps your skin taut and collagen keeps the skin plump - so when these cells are destroyed this can cause hollow looking and saggy skin. This can cause wrinkles to appear deeper and more obvious - this is known as the radical theory of ageing.
So… does this mean pollution can accelerate skin ageing?
Yes absolutely. A lot of us know that sun damage can cause fine lines and wrinkle to appear deeper. But a lot of us still don’t realise the effects of pollution on our skin. Anti-pollution skincare has become increasingly popular recently but the truth is free radicals - tiny particles in the air that damage skin - have always been an issue.
What can I do to protect my skin from free radical damage?
The great news is that there is a solution for fighting free radicals. To understand this fully, we just need to look at a bit more of the science.
So, we understand that free radicals are looking to ‘complete’ themselves by stealing an electron from a healthy cell. We also know that that doesn’t work. The chain reaction actually makes the healthy cell unstable.
So what is the number one solution for free radicals?
The way to combat this damage is to stop the chain reaction. Whilst normal cells can’t donate an electron and stay healthy, antioxidants are a stable molecular form that are able to do this and stop the process of damage. So antioxidants are the way to stop free radical damage.
How are antioxidants good for your skin?
Let’s go back to the example from earlier - you cut an apple and leave it out. It turns brown. What happens if you cut the same apple and leave it in orange juice? It doesn’t go brown. That’s an antioxidant at work.
Antioxidants are best for your skin when you apply them topically. You may take an antioxidant supplement, which is great for tackling free radical formation in the body, but when it comes to skincare, the most effective way is to apply it directly to the skin.
Antioxidants get to work seeking out free radicals and neutralising their effects. This stops the process of damaging cells. Antioxidants can also protect healthy cells against future damage - they aren’t just for use after damage but can be used to stop it happening in the first place.
Should I be using ‘anti-pollution skincare?’
Anti-pollution skincare can be a bit misleading. Anything with antioxidants is actually anti-pollution - because antioxidants are what fight against the effects of pollution! So rather than looking for anti-pollution, look for antioxidants that can penetrate the skin. Depending on your unique skin concerns there are a number of active ingredients you can look for. Let’s take a closer look.
What is the best antioxidant for me?
Here’s a pick of our fave ingredients, why they work and what you can find them in:
This is a really popular antioxidant when it comes to ageing skin. That’s because it has a double function - it both works to stop the free radical damage, stabilising those cells and it also has an added benefit of stimulating collagen production. So as we know your cell turnover slows as you age, so using Vitamin C can encourage repair of cells to speed up.
The thing that has been difficult with Vitamin C for skin care formulators is that it is unstable and starts to break down really quickly. That can mean you don’t get enough of the good stuff into your skin once you apply it.
That’s one of the many reasonsDermalogica’s Biolumin Cis so amazing. It has two different forms of ultra stable Vitamin C complexto ensure your skin gets all of the benefits from this active ingredient. This is combined with a designer peptide to encourage collagen production, which is great for repairing the damage done by free radicals.
AGE Smart® BioLumin-C Serumbrightening vitamin c serumSkincare30ml: £76.50
This is a form of Vitamin B3 and is a powerful antioxidant. It has anti-inflammatory properties and also can help with dealing with hyperpigmentation, a common concern with free radical damage from the sun.
Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant is a daily exfoliator, specially formulated for ageing skin to fight ROS damage. It has niacinamide as an antioxidant, alongside AHAs (Alpha hydroxy acids) to work as a chemical exfoliant to work to resurface the skin at the same time. The result is brighter, more even toned skin.
AGE Smart® Daily Superfoliant Exfoliatorresurfacing, anti-pollution powder exfoliantSkincare57g: £49.50
You may be a fan of drinking green tea but did you know it’s actually great for your skin too? That’s because it has catechins - chemicals that work as a powerful antioxidant to tackle cell damage and actually help to repair scars and skin damage.
Solution for ScarsClinically proven to reduce the appearance of scarringSkincare30ml: £16.99
Lesser known than Vitamin C and E, Grapeseed oil has been proven to be a potent antioxidant thanks to the proanthocyanidins it is rich in., which are really good at hunting out free radicals.
Ark Reverse Gravity Eye Creamhas grapeseed oil and is a good choice for ageing skin around the eyes. It is specially formulated for the delicate skin around the eye area.
Skin Essentials Reverse Gravity Eye CreamAn eye treatment to reduce the appearance of wrinklesSkincare15ml: £48.00
Now we understand a bit more about free radicals and Reactive Oxidative Species and how your skin can be damaged by them, it is clear why we need to get the right skin care products to fight free radical damage. That means stocking up on antioxidants. You can apply them topically but also should have a diet rich in them as well to ensure your whole body is protected and at its best health.
Antioxidants are only a part of the whole picture when it comes to the happy remarkable you, with healthy skin. To find out more about your unique skin and how you can address your skin concerns, take five minutes to complete our free skin profile tool here: