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Understanding Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress

March 29, 2021


We totally understand if the title of this article has put a puzzled expression on your face. The subject matter sounds like an advanced college biochemistry course. Free radicals? Oxidative stress? Seriously?! 


Let us assure you that this article is not going to be overly technical, nor is there going to be a quiz at the end. Instead, it’s going to be interesting reading and will provide you with some important information on what makes skin age prematurely - so that you can learn how to avoid it!

Rest easy, sit back, and learn some key facts that can help you achieve more radiant, youthful, and beautiful-looking skin.

First, What is Premature Aging?

Have you ever noticed that some people look older than their actual age? These are people you may know from work or from school, or people you grew up with. They may be your age or a bit younger, but for some reason they look much older.

Skin takes on an older appearance thanks to wrinkles. There are a lot of changes that take place over time at the cellular level of the skin, as well as on the surface. Premature skin aging results in a reduction of fat, moisture and supporting tissues under the skin, as well as an increase in damaged elastin, inflammation, and destruction of the skin’s structure.

When we’re young, our skin is smooth, plump, and tight. That’s because of two properties in our skin cells: elastin and collagen. Those are what give skin a youthful look: it's tightness and firm tone. 

We’re all born with elastin and collagen. But as we grow older, our bodies begin to produce less and less of these important chemicals. And two things diminish the amount we have in our skin: free radicals and oxidative stress.


So what are those terrible, skin-damaging villains with the funny name? Let's explore how it all works.

Oxidation is a process that happens when oxygen molecules interact with other substances, causing a loss of a molecule. When oxidation occurs, free radicals are created.

A free radical is a molecule that is missing one electron. Most molecules have two electrons, but free radicals only have one. Because they only have one, they can accept an electron from another molecule, or donate one. They are highly unstable and very reactive.

Your body produces free radicals all the time, just by breathing, for example. But the more damaging ones come from outside of the body. The biggest culprits are the ones produced by exposure to UV radiation from the sun, as well as from environmental toxins like pollution, smoke, and other pollutants in the air that we’re exposed to each day.

When skin cells are exposed to UV light, skin aging occurs through reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen.

Here’s why: your skin and body have all the oxygen you need from the air you breathe. If skin is exposed to excessive oxygen over prolonged periods of time, it causes damage to cell membranes and other areas of the body. 


Free radicals hook up with your body’s skin cells and grab one of their electrons. With high concentrations of free radicals, this can cause damage to your cells, particularly to the cell’s membranes, mitochondria, or its DNA. Over a period of time, this process can weaken your body’s immune system, and that is what ends up causing premature skin aging.

What are the signs of premature aging? The skin isn’t smooth and firm, due to the loss of collagen and elastin. This causes the skin to sag and become more prone to wrinkling, as if you were years older than your actual age. There could be pigmentation problems, or age spots, that you see on older skin.

There are many other problems associated with damage done by free radicals and the role that they play in the human body, so keep reading for a deeper understanding. 

Oxidative Stress

When we breathe, reactive oxygen species (ROS) are formed, and usually our bodies can deal with them. But when the body is exposed to UV light or heat, the ROS levels jump significantly, causing damage to cell structure. This is known as oxidative stress.

But it’s not only respiration that causes ROS, they’re also formed due to environmental pollution, smoke, toxins in the air, toxins in pools we swim in, toxins in the products we use, and more. And the damage that they can cause is severe.

Excessive ROS production causes oxidative damage to our cellular components, which include proteins, lipids and DNA. In fact, DNA damage is the basis of UV-induced skin cancer.

When our skin cells suffer DNA damage, there is a reduction in the amount of collagen and elastin in our skin. Plus, there is mitochondrial damage, which can lead to cell death. There are also many skin issues that occur due to ROS and oxidative stress, including wrinkles, fine lines, age spots, and more.


These changes are due to collagen breakdown, which weakens the skin’s structural integrity, and connective tissue inflammation. The leading cause of this damage is oxidative stress. The skin has efficient antioxidant systems to help protect itself, but this ability is limited due to the higher level of ROS formation in aging skin.

Collagen is the most prolific protein in our bodies, and is found in skin, bones, muscles, and organs - just about everywhere in the body! It provides skin with elasticity and also replaces dead skin cells.

To help protect the collagen, it’s critical for people to use sunscreen protection whenever skin is exposed to sunlight. To prevent premature skin aging, sunscreens and appropriate clothing that covers areas of the skin are the best line of defense available.

Understanding Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress: The Battle Begins!

Now that you have a basic understanding of some key terms like free radicals, oxidative stress and ROS, it’s time to talk about what can be done to fight back against premature skin aging. Because there are some weapons available to you, and knowing more prepares you for the fight to keep your skin looking healthy and young.


Antioxidants help the body repair itself, which is extremely important to skin cells that are constantly regrowing. And any antioxidant that is able to promote cell growth could play a key role in the anti-aging process by helping to minimize fine lines and wrinkles. 

Antioxidants are found in many foods, fruits, vegetables, and plants. They’re also found in beverages, like green tea. Green tea has chemical compounds called polyphenols. These are very powerful antioxidants.

Many foods have an abundance of potent antioxidants through vitamins like vitamins A, C, and E. Antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals, either by donating the extra electron needed to make a pair, or by actually breaking down the free radical’s molecule in order to make it harmless. It does this by breaking the chain reaction of oxidation.

In addition to blocking the formation of free radicals and helping to break up the free radical chain, antioxidants also have the capability to repair cells already damaged by free radicals.

When an external source of antioxidants is applied to the body, it assists the body in handling the oxidative stress. There are synthetic antioxidants available, but they have been found to harm the body, which is why a person needs to use effective, nontoxic natural antioxidants.


Many different medical problems occur when oxidative stress happens, including inflammatory disease, certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, and other medical conditions. It also impacts the aging process, and current research shows that damage to cells from free radicals can lead to the many cellular changes that are associated with aging. These include wrinkles; fine lines, loss of elasticity in the skin, and atypical skin pigmentation.

There are many other skin problems exacerbated by oxidative stress, and antioxidant strategies are used to help treat those problems. They include contact dermatitis, rosacea, acne, psoriasis, and other conditions.

Our bodies have the ability to produce antioxidants naturally which helps to neutralize the free radicals. But in order to have a constant supply of antioxidants, you need to eat a diet that is rich in antioxidants, and use skincare products that are formulated with powerful antioxidants as part of their ingredients.

Supplementation Versus Topical Application

To help ward off free radical damage to youthful skin, antioxidants lead the battle. In fact, many people supplement their diet with oral antioxidants to help in the battle against free radicals. But many research studies show that oral supplementation alone does not show much improvement against the free radical damage done to the skin.

Part of the reason is that oral antioxidants are metabolized in the body, so very little of the effective antioxidant properties never reach the skin to work their magic. In fact, it’s estimated that only 1% - 3% of oral antioxidants reach the skin’s surface.

Another problem is that excessive amounts of oral antioxidant supplements can prove to be toxic. Plus, they can negatively interact with prescription medications, so it’s smart to talk to your health care provider before you begin oral antioxidant supplementation.

Using skincare products that contain potent antioxidants is a good tactic, but the formulations should contain other key ingredients that help the skin retain a smooth, youthful appearance while helping to minimize fine lines and wrinkles.


Amino acids are one of these ingredients, as they are non-irritating and help keep the skin moisturized. Moisturizers like hyaluronic acid are important to help skin retain water, which helps to keep skin plump. Ingredients that have an abundance of naturally occurring carotenoids, which are flavonoids including beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene and others all act as antioxidants and help fight off free radicals.

Another nourishing ingredient in skincare formulations includes bioactive polysaccharides, which not only help firm and tighten skin and provide hydration, they also help boost the body’s immune system to fight off illness.

Topical applications are more effective because they have the ability to penetrate deep within the skin to battle the free radicals and oxidative stress. They also work to rejuvenate damaged cells and scavenge and remove dead ones. It is thought that the best approach is a synergistic one - eating a diet rich in antioxidant foods while using skincare formulations that contain powerful antioxidants.

Keep Your Skin Looking Beautiful - Putting a Plan Together

You’ve learned about free radicals and oxidative stress, and what they can do to your skin, and as promised, there are no quizzes to worry about!

The potential damage from free radicals could end up as premature skin aging, complete with loss of skin elasticity, poor skin tone and feel, age spots (hyperpigmentation) and many other skin problems.

The key is to prevent those problems from happening by both preventing the premature skin aging using sunscreen and proper clothing, as well as by using a smart regimen of antioxidants to fight off the free radicals.

By putting this plan in place, you’ll be prepared for whatever comes your way:

  • Wear sunscreen. The higher the SPF, the better. Keeping your face covered and away from direct sunlight is the single best gift you can give your skin! Wear hats, use sunscreen, scarves - whatever it takes to prevent premature skin aging due to UV radiation damage!
  • Eat a healthy diet. Make sure you eat plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables (like the Acai bowl with strawberries pictured above) because they’re the foods that are packed with antioxidants. Drink beverages with antioxidant properties as well, like green tea.
  • Choose skincare products with antioxidants. Check the label on skincare products to make sure that they contain antioxidants, as well as other ingredients that can help keep your skin looking its best. Look for moisturizers with oils and butters to hydrate and rejuvenate, vitamins, and extracts like superfruits, mushrooms and sea plants that rich in natural antioxidants. 
Follow this plan daily, because now that you have a good understanding of free radicals and oxidative stress, you can take the appropriate measures to protect and nourish your skin.