Antioxidants and Free Radicals! Woohoo!

by Sarah Villafranco, MD /

Antioxidant: it’s a major buzz word. But what does it mean to you? Generally, I’m sure you understand that antioxidants are good, and that oxidation is not so good, therefore we want to prevent oxidation by eating and applying ANTI oxidants. That’s the gist of it, to be sure. However, if we are going to be telling you about how wonderful our antioxidant-rich products are, like our body oils and face serums, let’s make sure you really know why it matters! Now I’m not going to lie – I am going to talk some chemistry and biology here. But, just try to forget the PTSD from your awful high-school science teacher, and I promise to be gentle. Deep breath…

We need oxygen. We can’t live without it. But it does damage, too. Inside cells, a phenomenon called oxidative stress causes trouble. Oxidation is a process by which exposure to oxygen produces free radicals. Ugh. I said it. FREE RADICALS. Another term that means something hazily, amorphously bad. A free radical is a molecule with a dangling bond. You just rolled your eyes. I felt it. Lemme splain.

You’re at Nordstrom. There is a sale on handbags. You have one in each hand and are pleased with your choices. Then you spy another woman with a better bag. You drop one of yours – now you have a dangling bond – and go grab her bag. Now she has a dangling bond. She goes after another gal’s bag. Soon it’s chaos – a bunch of crazy, sale-frenzied, bag-grabbing women. There are screams, bloody scratch marks, and a horrible vortex of negative energy swirling wildly about, each free radical hag for herself. Does that help? THAT’S what happens inside your cells when oxidation of molecules produces free radicals!

Now that the shopping analogy is firmly in place, picture a water molecule – an oxygen atom with a hydrogen atom in each hand (H2O). When the water molecule gets oxidized, it loses one of its hydrogen atoms, and just has a dangling free bond (this molecule is now called the hydroxyl radical), which grabs anything and everything it can, including intracellular proteins and DNA. Once it starts grabbing with its dangling bond, all hell breaks loose inside the cell. It grabs on to proteins, like collagen, causing them to uncoil and become damaged, resulting in cell injury and cell death, ultimately translating to saggy, more wrinkled skin. Free radicals also cause trouble in DNA by bonding with the DNA structure and causing mutations, which can ultimately do horrible things, like cause cancer. This same type of free radical damage may be involved in the development of dementia, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and atherosclerosis – to name a few.

Now, before you hate all radicals, let me say that A FEW of them are necessary. Their presence inside a cell can indicate that the cell is damaged and ready to be disposed of by the larger cells (macrophages – imagine little Pac-Man critters) responsible for cleaning up debris. Cells with unwanted bacteria often have radicals, which signal to the extracellular environment that they need help. But, when too many free radicals show up, it’s impossible to keep track of the helpful, signaling molecules versus the destructive, mutation-causing ones, and the clean-up cells just get overwhelmed and confused, and then it’s the Nordstrom scene all over again.

So, finding the right balance is the trick. (This is pretty much true for every situation in life, right?) Despite the beneficial actions of antioxidants inside the body, high-dose antioxidant supplements have not been conclusively shown to prevent the diseases caused by oxidative damage, and can even be harmful. However, consuming antioxidant-rich foods, and using skin products high in antioxidants can help keep free radicals at optimum levels.

Three antioxidants particularly relevant to skin care are Vitamins A, C, and E. Vitamin A, commonly referred to as tretinoin or retinoic acid, is the active ingredient in Retin-A. While it is available in pharmaceutical format, and has been shown, without a doubt, to improve skin appearance, it has been scrutinized lately for possible toxicity, both personal and environmental. Retinol, a milder form, is not as harsh on the skin, but may have a similar toxicity profile. It ends up being a personal choice – many women are willing to risk a little toxicity in exchange for younger looking skin. For those on the fence, using oils rich in Vitamin A is a safer alternative, and can improve skin appearance, albeit more slowly.

Vitamin C also has activity against free radicals, and can help lighten dark spots and improve skin texture. Using products with a relatively stable form of Vitamin C, such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, may help keep the vitamin in its most active, beneficial state. Both Vitamin A and Vitamin C increase sensitivity to the sun, and can have diminished efficacy when exposed to sunlight, so caution must be exercised here.

Finally, Vitamin E, which is essentially a collection of 8 tocopherols and tocotrienols, has been shown to limit oxidative damage. This is useful for application on the skin, as well as in the skin care product itself, where it helps prevent rancidity and oxidation. (We use Vitamin E as part of an antioxidant system in many of our products, to protect the product, and to improve the texture of your skin.)

Okay. So, those are the basics. There is SO much more to be learned about antioxidants and free radicals, but that seems like enough for one session, especially since you were so patient and put up with all that science. We’ll save the rest for another rainy day.

Questions, thoughts? Speak up.

Leave a Comment

That handbag analogy is wonderful. The visual it gives you is perfect and we all know what you’re talking about. Who hasn’t eyed a handbag someone else has picked up in the hopes that they put it back down. Love the blog post.

LInda on March 09, 2015

Great post! I’m a scientist, yet I could relate even more so to the Nordstrom scenario. I could actually see the scene playing out! Haha.

I swear by my antioxidant serum in the morning, as well as drinking plenty of water and using sunscreen. And yes, a diet rich in essential vitamins and nutrients is key. Thanks, Sarah!

Karen on July 09, 2014

Sarah, what a timely post! My husband just asked me about antioxidants this morning. My explanation always comes out vague and convoluted with some name-dropping thrown into the mix like “free radicals” and “cancer-causing” to prove that I know what I’m talking about. Your explanation makes this so tangible and relatable. Who has not experienced a Nordstrom scene like this one?! Well, that was a confession that was not meant for everyone :-) Thanks for another great post! I most certainly will be sharing this!

Sarita on July 09, 2014

I love this post AND the science talk! You would make a great science teacher. :) This topic reminds me of a recent NY Times article about why vitamin supplements can be harmful. … another great read. I prefer to get my topical dose of vitamins from oils. What is your favorite oil or plant source for vitamin A?

Suzanne on July 09, 2014

What a great read! Someone asked me recently what antioxidants actually were and what they did…I knew it was to do with free radicals but I couldn’t really explain it. Now I can – with handbags!

Mayah x

Mayah on July 09, 2014