What are free radicals?

Free radicals in the context of humans are the oxygen-related molecules like superoxides and hydroxyls. While the human body utilizes free radicals at the cellular level for things like defending against bacteria, excessive amounts of free radicals are known to cause cell and DNA damage. This is believed to be the underlying cause of ageing or even the development of certain cancers.

How are free radicals produced?

Ultraviolet radiation, certain food and drugs produce free radicals.

What harm do they cause to your skin?

Free radicals are believed to cause premature aging of the skin and even skin cancers. Aged skin manifests as wrinkles (damage to elastin and collagen), fine capillaries and pigmentation spots etc.

This fact is quite evident with fair skinned Caucasians living in sun drench climates. In the last 20 years since the popularity of sun-protection, some of these fair skinned Caucasians have managed to maintain flawless skin. While their countrymen who do not use sun-protection will show all the signs of prematurely aged skin.

What harm do they cause your body?

There are differing opinions on this. One point of view believes that free radicals cause damage at the cellular level. Cumulatively, these can cause various degenerative conditions and even cancers. This is the predominant view. It is also the view of the billion dollar Vitamin and Supplements businesses.

The other point of view is the skeptics. They feel all this is hyped up by Business.

What are the signs that you are suffering from free radical damage?

While it is tempting to link every condition to free radical damage, we must remember that there is also the genetic predisposition component to it.

For the skin, if it looks older than it should, or if you skin looks older than your twin siblings’, then you are likely to have UV induced free radical damage.

What can you do to prevent free radical damage?

Now we are entering the realm of big money Antioxidants and Supplements business. Antioxidants can prevent free radical damage. But the medical community is still debating whether they actually prolong life or prevent cancers.

For the skin, we do know that applying creams that contain UV protection and anti-oxidants as an active ingredient can reverse the signs of aging. But it remains unclear if the actual act of taking care of one’s skin is contributing more to the skin’s condition or is it the active ingredients working. There are studies which showed that patients after getting Botox only treatments showed global improvements to the skin. Even pigmentation is reduced. This has lead many researchers to believe that just the act of taking care of the skin, like getting Botox or applying creams more diligently can reverse the signs of ageing.

So it remains unclear how much difference antioxidants make. There will always be the skeptics simply because big businesses have a vested interest in it. But that alone should not be a reason to downplay the benefits of applying antioxidant creams.

But like all things in Medicine, the most important thing is that any treatment must first and foremost do no harm. And antioxidants creams fit this criterion.

How do antioxidants help counter free radicals?

Antioxidants slurp up free radicals by transferring an electron at the molecular level to them. They neutralize the free radicals and prevent them from causing damage to the cells’ proteins and DNA.  This is proven in many in-vitro studies.

Will eating antioxidants help with free radical damage on the skin? How?

There a limit to how much anti-oxidant the gut can absorb. The current thinking is that applying anti-oxidants, as a cream to the skin, will achieve the higher concentrations needed to prevent oxidative stress like UV sun-damage.

How does applying antioxidant rich skincare products help counter free radicals?

The underlying theory is that more than just blocking out UV radiation, one should additionally apply creams that contain antioxidants to further neutralize any free radicals that are produced. This had lead to a whole wave of Vitamin C sunblocks. Now the trend is again to split sun-blocks and Vit C serums into 2 distinct products. Also popular are various flavonoids, plant stem cell extracts, plant sterols and idebenone as the antioxidant.

Is eating or applying antioxidants better?

For treating the skin, applying anti-oxidants as a cream makes more sense. Higher concentrations of antioxidants can be achieved in the skin.  The gut can only absorb so much, and even if it could, you would not want all that anti-oxidant flowing around in the bloodstream.