Free radicals and antioxidants – buzzwords we often hear regarding skin’s health and age prevention. And we can expect to hear them even more often, as scientists extimate that free radicals (and not genes!) are responsible for up to 90% of early signs of ageing. Being aware of their presence and finding smart ways to reduce their harm will help to prevent those first fine lines, dots and spots. 

WHY SKIN AGES?

There are two core mechanisms of skin ageing. The first one is intrinsic or chronological ageing which is genetically determined and progresses gradually over lifetime. The signs of chronological ageing usually start to show up as late as in our 50s, which means that theoretically we have a chance to look flawless. But why do we start to see those lines, wrinkles, sags and bags appearing at our 30s or even late 20s?

The fact is that up to 90% of visible signs of aging are caused by external factors, such as lifestyle and environmental stress rather than genes and just plain time. This process is called extrinsic ageing and has a great influence on how we look. This kind of ageing is closely related to free radicals and their destructive effects on our skin.

WHAT ARE FREE RADICALS, YOU ASK?

Free radicals are highly reactive (think: hungry) oxygen molecules that miss an electron and are therefore structurally unstable. To regain their stability, free radicals interact with other nearby molecules of skin cells, cells’ DNA or collagen to steal the missing electron from them. Unfortunately, this process goes on – the attacked molecule becomes a free radical itself, beginning a cascade of destructive chain reactions, called oxidative stress.

Free radicals are massively generated by environmental factors such as pollution and sun exposure, especially affecting exposed skin areas – face, neck, hands. Lifestyle (cigarette smoke, inappropriate diet), as well as biochemical reactions in the body (illness, strenuous aerobic exercise, etc.) significantly contributes to the extent of oxidative stress. Skin is being attacked and damaged by thousands of free radicals every day.

PROTECT YOUR SKIN

Luckily, there is a defence mechanism against free radical damage, provided by antioxidants. Antioxidants interact with free radicals to stop them from harming healthy skin structures and discontinue the destructive oxidative reactions. Our bodies produce some antioxidants, yet many essential antioxidants must be supplied through diet and topically – with skincare products. In fact, to protect skin from environmental damage and premature ageing, topical application is considered to be far more effective than oral intake.

Alchemilla Vulgaris or lady's mantle – a simple, yet so precious Northern plant, rich in powerful antioxidants that help to protect skin from free radical damage

Some of the most important antioxidants are natural molecules, generated by plants to support their vegetation and protect themselves from environmental stress and disease. Among some very popular antioxidants are vitamins E (found in soy, avocado) and C (found in cloudberries, rowanberries, cabbage), beta-carotene (also known as provitamin A, found in red coloured fruits and vegetables), and others.

Some plants contain extraordinarily high concentrations of polyphenols or anthocyanins – other types of powerful antioxidants. For example, Alchemilla Vulgaris (lady’s mantle) contains high doses of polyphenols that are able to neutralise up to 90% of free radical damage. Different antioxidants have different modes of action. Some supress the formation of free radicals (think: prevent fire), some neutralise them (think: work as firemen to extinguish the fire), while some repair the damage already done (think: rebuild the house after the fire). The key to success is to combine multiple antioxidants to provide a full spectrum of protection.

Fern, yet another precious plant from the depths of Northern forest

ANY ACTION POINTS?

Maximise your supply of multiple antioxidants through a well-balanced diet and smartly formulated skincare, rich in free radical neutralising actives. Eat well (think: fresh, organic, colourful food) to ensure an antioxidant-rich diet. Natural colours of plants often indicate presence of specific groups of antioxidants (red and yellow stand for cartenoids, blue stands for anthocyanins, etc.).

Every morning and every night use moisturisers that contain natural plant extracts to ensure a good supply of natural antioxidants and therefore protect your skin from the outside. Antioxidant-rich cream, applied in the morning, will serve as a shield to defend your skin from the daily attacks of pollutants and sun, while regenerating night cream will help to neutralise and repair the free radical damage.

Wear sunglasses and hats that protect your skin from harmful UV exposure. Use natural sunscreen. Be aware that synthetic sunscreens help to prevent UV damage, but they might trigger oxidative reactions themselves, so prefer natural, mineral-based UV filters.

Avoid urban pollution as much as possible. Polluted urban air can be 3000 times more harmful than cigarette smoke, especially during hot days, when toxins sit on the ground level. If you are a city bird, cleanse and detox your face every evening and then apply an antioxidant-bursting moisturiser afterwards. Take care of sufficient water intake and sleep well to keep your skin protected, healthy and radiant.