Free radicals is one of those scientific terms that’s often flung around in the beauty industry. Serums promise to protect against them, and we’re assured they’re bad news, but what are free radicals?
Simply put, free radicals are unstable molecules or atoms. They only have one electron, and are looking for another to make a pair. When free radicals partner with an electron from a healthy molecule, that too becomes a free radical, and the cycle continues.
Finding it hard to visualise? Imagine skiers. Healthy cells have two skis, meaning they can whoosh down the slopes with ease, whereas free radicals only have one ski. They’re skulking around the top of the mountain, looking for healthy cells to steal a ski from. If they manage it, that healthy cell will be stranded with just one ski, turning it into a free radical.
When this happens repeatedly, the skin is put under stress. Think of it like a rising pile of paperwork on your desk – the more that’s added to the pile, the more stressed you will become.
Free radicals don’t just appear out of thin air, instead they’re triggered by a number of different scenarios. External aggressors such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, chemicals and UV rays can all generate the production of free radicals. Inside the body, free radicals can also come from day-to-day metabolic processes. Having some free radicals is not a bad thing, it’s only when the scales tip and they become out of control that problems start.
When free radicals pair with a healthy molecule, that skin cell then oxidises. A good way to picture oxidation is in the context of an apple. Cut it open, leave it on the side, and it will start to brown.
Of course, free radicals aren’t changing the colour of our skin, but what they can do is increase the production of age spots and rob our complexions of radiance. By damaging healthy skin cells and their components, free radicals also accelerate the ageing process.
Our bodies are able to defend themselves against free radicals, but our defenses become less and less robust as we age. Enter antioxidants: molecules such as vitamins and minerals ready to give our skin a helping hand.
In our diet, antioxidants can be found in foods such as blueberries and goji berries. In skincare, the most commonly used antioxidants are vitamins C and E. Antioxidants block free radicals, preventing them from pairing with healthy molecules. Think of antioxidants as the bouncer on the door of a swanky nightclub. With them in place to protect our skin, free radicals aren’t on the list and they certainly aren’t coming in.
For top-notch protection, pair an antioxidant serum with a daily SPF of 30 or more. By adding to its defences, skin is better equipped to protect itself.