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What Are Free Radicals & How Do They Affect Your Skin?

Free radicals are the bad guys of the skincare world. But what are free radicals and how do they affect your skin? We’re breaking down everything you need to know about these skin spoilers ahead!


What are free radicals?

Everything in the world, from humans to the air that surrounds us, is made of molecules. Those molecules are made of atoms, and each atom is paired with an electron (ideally). Free radicals form when these atoms are exposed to things like UV rays, pollution, or other stressors such as smoke and chemicals, and they lose their electron pair.

What makes free radicals so dangerous is this missing electron. This is because they are desperately seeking a replacement to join up with. When they come into contact with unprotected skin, free radicals steal an electron from the skin, attacking healthy cells in their quest to become stable. This theft causes damage to the skin in the forms of sunspots, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone.


Where do free radicals come from?

Free radicals can be produced in the body naturally through chemical processes like metabolism. But they’re also introduced from outside sources, like pollution, UV light, cigarette smoke, and chemicals.

One of the newest sources found to be responsible for  skin-damaging free radicals isthe blue light emitted from electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets. We even generate free radicals when we consume things like fried foods and alcohol. Think of free radicals as the waste products left behind from chemical reactions within the skin cells. 



How do free radicals cause skin damage?

At a cellular level, free radicals can kick off a chain reaction that causes a path of destruction and often leads to the death of cells. The first free radical pulls an electron from a molecule, which destabilizes the molecule and turns it into a free radical. That molecule then takes an electron from another molecule, destabilizing it and turning it into a free radical as well. This domino effect can eventually disrupt and damage the whole cell, resulting in age spots, fine lines and wrinkles, and a loss of skin elasticity.

Our bodies do produce their own antioxidants which neutralize 99.9 percent of free radicals. But by the age of 30, our cells can no longer eliminate them fast enough. And the worst part is, that’s when fine lines and collagen depletion naturally set in. The bottom line is that free radicals speed up the natural signs of aging at the worst time possible.


So how do you fight free radicals?

  • By wearing sunscreen
    Since UV rays are a major trigger for cell mutation and free radical damage, start by always wearing sunscreen. Make this the most important step in your morning skincare routine.

  • By doing a skin detox
    Over time, the accumulation of free radicals can take its toll on your skin health, causing wrinkles, fine lines, and early aging. Combat this problem by using an anti-aging face mask, as it draws impurities out of your skin.

  • By loading up on antioxidants

    Your skin is exposed to free radicals every day, and while you can't avoid them, you can keep them in check with antioxidants. Eat them and slather them on your face daily to fight skin damage. Not sure what an antioxidant is? Keep reading!


What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are types of molecules that neutralize free radicals that would otherwise cause damage to the cells in our bodies.

Vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin E are some of the most well-known antioxidants. Antioxidants prevent free radicals from taking electrons and causing damage, by donating the electrons needed to stabilize free radicals, without becoming destabilized themselves. This protects the rest of your cells from free radical damage, while also preventing the formation of new free radicals.


Antioxidant-rich foods

Seeing free radical skin damage in the form of dull, tired, dry, or breakout-prone skin? These foods are loaded with antioxidants and can help. 

  • Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and arugula
  • Dairy products like milk and butter
  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and herring
  • Fruits like oranges, strawberries, blueberries, and mango
  • Avocados
  • Dark chocolate


Hydration, free radicals and antioxidants


Hydration is absolutely essential for glowing skin in the fight against free radical damage. Try drinking your antioxidants with the orange and berry-infused water or green juice recipes below. We’ve touched on other ways to get glowy in our previous post How to Get Glowing Skin.

Orange and Berry Infused Water
2 oranges (sliced)
½ cup blueberries
½ cup raspberries
10 cups water

1. Slice oranges into wheels, and squeeze juice from the ends into pitcher of water.
2. Add blueberries and raspberries. Squish them if you’d like a stronger taste!
3. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, so the water can absorb the flavors.


Antioxidant Boosting Green Juice
1 handful of kale
½  inch grated fresh ginger
5 mini cucumbers
2 apples
8 celery stalks

1. Wash and prep the ingredients according to your juicer's instructions.
2. Juice in the order listed.
3. Add ice and drink immediately.

Antioxidants in skincare

Thinking of adding an antioxidant-rich skincare product or two into your beauty routine? These tips will help you get the most out of your free radical fighting products.

  • Pair them together

    When it comes to antioxidants in skincare, certain ones are especially potent, including vitamins C and E, ferulic acid, resveratrol, green tea, grape seed extract, and coenzyme Q10. Antioxidants work synergistically by stabilizing and powering each other up. For example, a vitamin c booster is great, but when you use it in tandem with vitamin E and ferulic acid, free radicals beware!

  • Use them in your morning and nighttime routines

    Dermatologists used to recommend that antioxidants only be used in the a.m., thinking that the skin isn't exposed to as much damage at night. But research now shows inflammation from daytime UV damage can persist for several hours after exposure, so antioxidants can be useful in your p.m routine as well.

  • Vitamin C can be finicky

    Vitamin C is high-maintenance but so worth it. This antioxidant doesn’t play well with glycolic or salicylic acids or retinoic acid in retinol. But that's not to say they can't coexist. Look for a product that formulates them to work together. Or use vitamin C in the morning, then go with an antioxidant like resveratrol with your acid at night. Heat, light, and air can break down antioxidants, but vitamin C is particularly susceptible so look for products in opaque, airtight containers. 


It’s time to step up your free radical fighting defenses. Load up on the antioxidants (on your face and on your plate) and keep your sunscreen close by. Because you’re about to banish free radical skin damage and put those pesky little molecules in their place!




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