Free Radicals, Wrinkles, And What Skin Care Products You Can Use To Fight Them

Patient Expert

I hear so much about free radicals being bad for the skin and how antioxidants can fight them, but I don't really know what it means. What are free radicals and how do they cause wrinkles?

In order to understand how free radicals affect our skin, we have to go back to some basics of chemistry. All matter is made up of atoms. In turn, these atoms are made up of neutrons, protons and electrons. Protons and neutrons are located in the nucleus of an atom while electrons exist in pairs around this nucleus.

When two or more atoms bond together, they become molecules. Stable molecules possess pairs of electrons in their outermost shells. Pollution, UV rays, and carbon monoxide can all react with our bodies' molecules and cause them to lose an electron, leaving one without a partner. The idea of an unpaired electron may seem insignificant to those of us outside of the science community, but it can cause a lot of damage.

Think of these single electrons as chemical homewreckers. A lone (or "free") electron wants to be part of a pair and will therefore steal an electron from another pair on a neighboring molecule. This causes a chain reaction because it leaves another molcule with an unpaired electron that will attack yet another molecule to steal an electron.

Unfortunately, free radicals tend not to be very choosy and will attack a variety of molecules including the DNA, lipids and proteins in our skin. This can damage the structure of cell membranes, making cells function poorly or even die off. Scientists theorize that free radicals may be responsible not only for aging but also a variety of other ailments such as heart disease and strokes.

Antioxidants fight free radicals by jumping into the fray and stopping the chain reaction before the cell is irreversibly damaged. In the skin, this means that free radicals have a decreased ability to break down the collagen that keeps our skin elastic. Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and beta-carotene are all well-documented antioxidants, but a slew of other antioxidants are now making their way into cosmetic anti-wrinkle products. Exotic ingredients such as green tea (in Juice Beauty's Antioxidant Serum), grape-seed oil (in Caudalie's Vinoperfect line), and cloudberry extract (in Lumene's Radiant C-Energy products) are becoming more prevalent as cosmetic companies try to convince consumers that they use the "best" antioxidants.

The truth is that there is no "best" antioxidant. They all help fight free radical damage similarly and no one antioxidant has been proven to be better at this than others. Research does show, however, that a combination of antioxidants will work better at improving your skin than a product with a single antioxidant ingredient. Therefore, a product with Vitamins C, E and green tea extract will work better than a product with green tea extract alone.

In addition, antioxidants tend to be unstable in many cosmetic formulas and will break down over time, losing their efficacy. However, it may not be long before we see further progress-a doctor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem recently recorded a new plant-based antioxidant that specifically counters the damage to collagen in the skin. The ingredient is currently being patented and demonstrates stability in water.