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February 14, 2023
When you think of free radicals and antioxidants, maybe the first picture that comes to mind is how one half of the apple turns brown, while the other half that is applied with antioxidants stays the same color. Well, the actual process goes like this.
When an apple is cut, oxygen is introduced into the plant tissue. The phenolase enzymes on the top then rapidly oxidise, form melanin and release free radicals. After a while, because of the chain reaction that the free radicals set off, the browning would extend from the surface, which is exposed to oxygen, to the whole apple.
Now, our bodies are more complex than an apple, so the harms free radicals can do to our bodies are much more extensive, and are in fact the main cause of aging.
This is why antioxidants are one of the most important things you need in your skincare routine to keep the skin healthy and young.
Our cells are made of molecules that contain electrons that must stay in pairs to stay stable and healthy. When a molecule interacts with oxygen, it undergoes the process of oxidation, and becomes a free radical, an unstable atom or molecule that is missing an electron. To make itself whole, it attacks the nearest stable molecule and steals an electron. This action not only leads to damages to all components of a cell, including DNA, proteins, lipids and its membrane, it also sets off a chain reaction of cellular disruption whereby the victimised molecule, now missing an electron, is transformed into a free radical.
Since human beings need oxygen to stay alive, free radicals are inevitable. In fact, free radicals and other reactive oxygen species (ROS) have a necessary function for proper physiological function in the body——at a regulated amount, they can prevent bacterial, fungal and other pathogenic invasion from infecting the body. However, when there is an excess of free radicals in the body, they can create oxidative stress that manifest as diseases at certain ages determined by genetic and environmental factors, such as cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Our skin being the largest organ of our bodies, is obviously non-exempted.
Free radicals damage the skin by triggering chronic inflammations, as well as breaking down the collagen and elastin fibers in the skin. Although invisible to the eyes, this gradually slows down our skin’s natural rejuvenation process, and appears on the skin in the form of dryness, dullness, loss of elasticity, wrinkles, pigmentation, redness, itchiness, and even chronic conditions like eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis.
Unfortunately, a lot of things around us also create free radicals, including but not limited to UV rays, pollution, dust, pesticides, alcohol, cigarette smoke, X-rays, cooking, household cleaners, stress, inflammations, illnesses, and even food and excessive exercises.
In short, antioxidants are the molecules that prevent oxidation in other molecules and stop the production of free radicals which may damage our cells.
How do they work?
To neutralise and prevent damages caused by free radicals, antioxidants scavenge the free radicals and offer up one of their electrons to prevent healthy cells and tissues from breaking down. This halts the chain reaction of free radical production, thereby preventing oxidative stress and skin cell damages, and allowing our skin to heal and repair itself.
Now, our bodies naturally produce antioxidants, but they are not nearly enough to combat all the oxidative stressors that we are exposed to everyday. There is no way we can direct the antioxidants our bodies produce to our skin either.
This is where topical antioxidants from our daily skincare routine come in. Used in the mornings, they help fight free radicals we are exposed to during the day; used at nights, they help repair the ongoing damages accumulated during the day, whilst stimulating the our bodies’ own natural production of antioxidants.
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Here is the catch. There is more than one single type of free radical out there, which means they can attack different parts of the skin via different pathways down to the cellular level. It is thus important to take a holistic approach, and supplement the skin with a cocktail of antioxidants, instead of focusing on one and hope for the best.
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Different combination of different antioxidants can be found in both plants and animals, as each kind has its own defence systems against free radicals and oxidative damages. Now, there are thousands of different substances that can act as antioxidants, with some more superior than others. Here are some examples that are beneficial in skincare:
As mentioned above, one type of antioxidant is never enough. In fact, some antioxidants work even better when combined. For instance, retinol (vitamin A) combined with vitamin C is the fast-track to collagen production, vitamins C and E or vitamin C and ferulic acid deliver better antioxidant performances together.
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As antioxidants are needed by the whole body and not just the skin, it is important to make sure enough antioxidants are included in your diet. This will not only help to keep the skin young and healthy, but will also help protect you from diseases like cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Daily foods and spices that are abundant in different forms of antioxidants include:
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