What Is a Free Radical, Anyway?

What Is a Free Radical, Anyway?

Alarming words haunt the skincare community like eerie ghosts, their meanings threatening to sabotage our efforts to achieve poreless, wrinkle-free complexions. In actuality, some aren’t so bad and are too quickly condemned, such as “chemicals” (hello, water is a chemical) and “preservatives” (they’re essential and come in many forms).

Other terms, however, are generally misunderstood and, as a result, we might not take them as seriously as we should. Free radicals — which sound more like a nickname for a ‘70s wild child — are a perfect example. It’s a nebulous, woo-woo-sounding term that holds little meaning to many. But just because so few people understand them doesn’t mean they can’t do real, negative damage to our skin.

So what actually are free radicals?

To get a grasp on free radicals, you need to know a little basic chemistry first. Oxygen molecules, for example, which float throughout the entire atmosphere, are made up of two oxygen atoms. (Think of this pair like JFK and Jackie O, Ellen and Portia, Victoria and David.) The two stick together to make a whole, happy, molecular duo. But things happen — physical obstacles like the sun and pollutants get in the way (more on this later!) that can cause the two atoms to split. This results in separated atoms with unpaired electrons, which are referred to as free radicals.

Without their “mate,” these free radicals become very unstable due to their unpaired electrons, which crave being in a pair. That means that these atoms’ one and only goal is to attach themselves to other atoms or molecules in an attempt to seek out other unpaired electrons and become more balanced. Unfortunately, free radicals are pretty erratic and will attach themselves to whatever is in their path, even if it only makes matters worse.

That’s where your skin comes in: not only does it continuously produce free radicals of its own, it’s often in the path of them from outside sources, which attach themselves to the healthy cells. Though it may sound pretty harmless, it isn’t. When free radicals secure to your skin in an attempt to re-balance, it disrupts the molecular makeup of your complexion. There’s then a chain of events where more and more free radicals are generated, upsetting even more healthy cells. The finished product: a weakened skin barrier, damaged tissue, and premature aging, including fine lines and wrinkles.

Stocksy United / Alexey Kuzma

What causes free radicals to exist?

Two of the biggest triggers for free radicals are the sun and pollutants, notes Dr. Debra Jaliman, a board-certified dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.

“People who live in big cities are [generally] exposed to more pollution,” she says. “Smog, cigarette smoke, and even the chemicals we clean with generate some free radicals. It’s not to say smaller cities or suburban towns don’t have exposure to free radicals, but most likely are exposed to a lesser degree.”

In the same way, those who live in very sunny climates or spend a lot of time outdoors are generally more exposed to free radicals created by the sun. Whatever the trigger, though, one fact remains the same: free radicals are harmful, and protecting your skin from them is essential.

Now what? How do we protect ourselves?

Free radicals are an unfortunate part of existing on this planet, but you don’t have to watch your skin slowly degrade just because they’re floating about. In fact, you’ve got an arsenal of skin-protecting weapons at your fingertips. One of the best is antioxidants.

“Antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E protect our cells by contributing electrons to fulfill the free radicals' needs,” says Dr. Jaliman. In other words, they hand over a much-needed electron so the free radical can finally chill out. Consider them the non-biased therapist in a messy split — there to coax, calm, and repair existing and potential damage.

[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]

Some potent skincare options include TATCHA® Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHA ($88) and PCA skin® C-Quench® Antioxidant Serum ($75), which both include powerhouse vitamin C to help defend and treat your skin. We’re also fond of Origins® A Perfect WorldTM Antioxidant Moisturizer with White Tea ($45), which pairs white tea (which is naturally rich in antioxidants) with sodium hyaluronate to promote more hydrated skin, and Drunk Elephant® D-Bronzi® Anti-Pollution Sunshine Drops ($36). This unique formula uses a peptide that mimics the antioxidant benefits of vitamin D while helping skin appear more youthful, plus contains vitamin E and cocoa extract (another antioxidant!) for good measure. Regular use of antioxidant-infused skincare formulas will go a long way towards protecting your skin.

But as valuable as these formulas are for your defense against free radicals, don’t solely rely on topical application of antioxidants. While it’s highly recommended by dermatologists, they also want you to get your fill when eating, too. Dr. Jaliman says, “Foods like blueberries, green tea, and walnuts can provide your skin with the necessary antioxidants to fight off the aging effects of pollution.”

Another way to protect yourself is to minimize your exposure to the sun. Slathering on an SPF of at least 30 every day, (and throughout the day) is vital. Protective clothing and accessories, along with limited exposure, is also important. Luckily, a handful of sunscreens have built-in technology that ward off pollutants in addition to UV rays, such as Murad® City Skin® Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 PA++++ ($65) and Glossier® Daily Sunscreen SPF 35 ($25).

Stocksy United / Riley JB



What about existing damage?

So you’ve already seen the effects of free radicals (including fine lines and wrinkles) — what now? While prevention is ideal when it comes to all skin damage, sometimes you have to rely on more advanced methods to correct what’s already occurred. “It is very difficult to reverse the damage, but there are cosmetic procedures that can help rebuild,” notes Dr. Nava Greenfield, a board-certified dermatologist with the Schweiger Dermatology GroupTM in Brooklyn. “[For example], ablative laser procedures deliver a specific wavelength of light to the skin which stimulates collagen formation and improves the appearance of skin which has been damaged by oxidative damage.” (Learn more about laser skin resurfacing here.)

Dr. Greenfield adds that it’s important to address existing damage sooner rather than later, as weakened skin means you’re more susceptible to future harm. She explains, “Normally, skin has the ability to correct most of the damage that is caused, but the more damage and the longer it builds up, the less likely the skin is able to correct all of it.”  Remember, free radicals beget more free radicals, accelerating the skin’s deterioration. And once that process starts, it can be practically impossible to slow it down without interference from products or treatments.

Unfortunately, we can’t stop free radicals from existing in the atmosphere. But we can prevent them from affecting us so much. By limiting our exposure to the sun and environmental pollutants, and shielding ourselves with the right ingredients, we can help reduce the skin damage they cause. Just don’t underestimate these troublesome atoms with unpaired electrons.

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The PA rating system is used in Japan to classify UVA protection and is not an FDA requirement on sunscreens sold in the U.S.