What Are Free Radicals? Plus, How to Combat Them

March 03, 2020
Claire Rodgers
By: Claire Rodgers | skincare.com by L'Oréal
What Are Free Radicals? Plus, How to Combat Them

If you keep up with all things skin care, you’ve likely heard at least once or twice about how free radicals are bad news for your complexion. But are you aware of why these molecules are so damaging to your body’s largest organ, and what they’re capable of? If not, you’ll want to keep reading. We tapped board-certified dermatologist and Skincare.com consultant Joshua Zeichner, M.D., to break down the connection between free radicals and the skin. Read on to discover what free radicals are, how they can harm you and what you can do about them.

What Are Free Radicals?

Before getting into just how much havoc free radicals can wreak on your skin, we must first explain what they are. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that are formed by normal bodily functions — like breathing, for instance — as well as environmental aggressors, such as UV rays, smoke and pollution. These unstable compounds look to pair with a missing electron. In doing so, they can latch onto your skin, create a negative chain reaction on your skin’s surface and induce damage to cells. “Free radicals have extra energy in them that can damage neighboring skin cells and collagen,” Dr. Zeichner says. 


What Can Free Radicals Do to Your Skin?

Aside from genetics and time, free radicals are one of the most common causes of visible signs of skin aging, including sagging skin, fine lines and wrinkles. The Cleveland Clinic suggests that when the skin is exposed to environmentally-induced free radicals, they can penetrate the skin, attack lipids that protect you against moisture loss and, in turn, weaken the skin’s barrier. As a result, the skin appears to age prematurely due to dryness and loss of elasticity. In addition to premature aging, a study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology suggests that there may be a connection between free radicals and acne.


How Can You Help Protect Your Skin From Free-Radical Damage?

While there’s not much you can do about pollution that’s already swarmed the atmosphere, you can certainly take precautionary measures to ensure your skin stays well-protected against free radicals. That’s where antioxidants like vitamin C come in. Antioxidants are capable of neutralizing free-radical damage by pairing with scavenging free radicals in search of a missing electron. Without that protection in place, the free radical could latch onto a skin protein and break it down.

How to Incorporate Antioxidants Into Your Skin-Care Routine

Now that you know the crucial role of antioxidants in skin care, it’s time to start applying them to your skin. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests using antioxidants in tandem with a broad-spectrum sunscreen to help protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. There are plenty of antioxidant-rich serums on the market that can serve as a solid line of defense under your sunscreen of choice. Below, we share our favorite antioxidant serums on the market.


SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is a daytime antioxidant serum — formulated with vitamins C and E, as well as ferulic acid –– that offers environmental protection against free radicals. In addition to protecting the skin against free-radical damage, C E Ferulic can help reduce the visible signs of aging (think: fine lines and wrinkles) and photo-damage.  

CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum

This serum is formulated with a potent dose of 10% pure vitamin C to not only protect skin against environmental aggressors like free radicals but also brighten your skin tone. It also contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid to deliver a boost of hydration and restore your skin’s barrier. 

La Roche-Posay 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum

Formulated with 10% pure vitamin C, salicylic acid and neurosensine, this antioxidant serum helps to restore radiance and hydration, and give you softer skin with regular use. As a result, fine lines, wrinkles and uneven skin texture are smoothed to give you an even tone.

Dr. Barbara Sturm Anti-Pollution Drops

This lightweight serum helps address all the signs of premature aging and environmental aggressors like fine lines, wrinkles, dullness and uneven texture. It’s formulated with a blend of hyaluronic acid, purslane (another strong antioxidant) and cocoa seeds that help combat digital aging. 

Photo: Chaunte Vaughn

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