To explain what Antioxidants are and what they can do for you, we first need to explain what Free Radicals are.
Free Radicals are Highly Reactive atoms or molecules. That doesn't make them sound very harmful, but when Free Radicals exist in our bodies or skin, their chemical nature makes them incredibly destructive. They are the chemical equivalent of the proverbial "Bull in a China Shop", destroying the most delicate cells they come across.
In chemical terms, free radicals are atoms or molecules that are missing an electron in their outer orbit. Again, that doesn't sound dangerous! But it is the mission of every molecule to try to balance its electrons, and it does not rest until it has achieved this. Free radicals “steal” electrons from other molecules, and they do this from molecules that “give up” an electron the most readily.
The most readily available sources of single electrons in our skin are lipids in cell membranes, nucleic acids in DNA and RNA, and proteins. When a free radical steals an electron from a molecule, it turns the original molecule into a free radical - because it is now missing an electron. So the new free radical must seek another ready source to steal an electron from. Free radicals cascade through our skin in this way, slowly causing cumulative damage. The damage that free radicals cause is called “Oxidation” and this chain-reaction is called an “Oxidative Cascade”. Because one of the potential targets of free radical damage is nucleic acids, free radicals are known to cause damage to DNA and to cause new cells to be produced with faulty DNA (faulty DNA expression).
Free radical damage in skin commonly results in;
The truth is that free radicals exist everywhere. They exist in polluted air, in smog and in smoke. When Ozone (O3) breaks down to normal Oxygen (O2) it releases a singlet oxygen atom - a highly destructive free radical - into the air we breathe. The most abundant source of free radicals in our skin is UV exposure, which triggers the generation of free radicals. But most ominously free radicals are created in our bodies as by-products of entirely natural chemical reactions: including the release of energy in our cells in the form of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) and cell respiration, which splits O2 to utilize one of the Oxygen atoms - leaving behind another singlet oxygen free radical.
The term “antioxidants” is used to describe atoms or molecules that can readily “donate” a spare electron. They are said to “lock-up” free radicals, and “squelch” oxidative cascades. Antioxidants exist in our blood and our bodies because we eat foods that contain antioxidants, though we can synthesize some specific antioxidants. The best sources of dietary antioxidants are colorful fruits and vegetables such as carrots, apricots and bell peppers. When there are more free radicals in our bodies than natural antioxidants to lock them up, we suffer from something known as “oxidative stress”.
All antioxidants are not equal. Each “species” of antioxidant donates its electron readily to a different “species” of free radical. This is why effective antioxidant protection, always mentions broad-spectrum antioxidants. For example Astaxanthin, a potent carotenoid from Microalgae, helps to protect skin from inflammation and DNA damage, and aging triggered by sugar, browned foods and alcohol; whereas antioxidants found in White & Green Teas neutralize free radicals found in air pollution, smog and tobacco smoke. What all this means is that even the most powerful antioxidant cannot protect you on its own.
Unfortunately only a very small fraction of dietary antioxidants actually reaches your skin cells, so topically applied antioxidants are the best way to protect your skin from oxidative stress. Antioxidant skincare is primarily preventive, so you are not likely to see immediate results from topically applied antioxidant skincare products. But long-term skin health requires long-term planning. Because of this, we advocate early adoption of broad-spectrum antioxidants and consistent use over years to slow free radical damage.