free radicals

What Are Free Radicals and How Do They Impact Skin Aging?

Reference Lab

MAY 15, 2022

If you think of your skin as the superhero (we certainly do!), its worst enemies are free radicals. These molecules have been studied extensively for their roles in aging and disease, and exposing the skin to these molecular villains is a leading cause of photoaging and can drive skin cancers.1

What are free radicals in skin and what causes them?

Free radicals are unstable forms of molecules that can disrupt important cell components like DNA and protein, which are critical for optimal cell health. Free radicals are characterized by an unpaired electron state, making them highly reactive. This means they will bind indiscriminately with other molecules to steal an electron in order to become stabilized. The electron donor’s state thus suddenly becomes unbalanced, generating a domino effect as the donor then also converts into an unpaired, unstable molecule on the hunt for electrons. You may have also heard of the term reactive oxygen species (ROS) in your own reading. What is the difference between free radicals and ROSs? ROSs are a subtype of free radicals; reactive particles containing oxygen molecule(s) with unpaired electrons. Now, while this all sounds a bit scary, this process occurs normally in the body as a byproduct of energy production in the powerhouses of the cell, the mitochondria. As such, our body evolved to develop protective antioxidant mechanisms to keep energy levels in check, but high levels of free radicals are definitely cause for concern. Uncontrolled free radical behavior eventually leads to irreversible changes in biological molecules’ structure and function – and even disease on a larger scale.

How do free radicals affect the skin?

Free radical exposure and ROS production can be exacerbated by lifestyle choices, such as poor diet, smoking, exposure to environmental pollutants in the air, and/or exposure to UV rays (sun) and other types of radiation. ROS formation is a large cause of cellular damage. Cellular stress caused by free radical damage is termed “oxidative stress” and is an established hallmark of aging. 2Oxidative stress unleashes all kinds of harm that reduces skin function. When a skin cell is bombarded with too many free radicals, DNA becomes damaged to the point of inactivation, leading to cell death or even mutations in genes that can trigger skin cancer development.3 Free radicals can also severely impair protein in the skin. This has been reported through ROS-mediated degradation of components of the extracellular matrix (ECM) like collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid. Disruption of the ECM network leads to a weakening of the skin barrier and many signs of extrinsic aging.1Oxidative damage can also react with the microbes and oil on the surface of the skin, causing oxidation of lipids in sebum that can trigger inflammation and lead to acne.5
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How do you know if you have free radicals?

Free radicals are a consequence of being a living, breathing human being. However, skin damaged by an abundance of free radicals, due to external exposures, will have similar characteristics often seen in skin aging. Photoaged skin - or premature skin aging caused by UV radiation - exhibits visible signs such as:

Do antioxidants fight free radicals in the skin?

So, how do antioxidants help skin anyways? Antioxidants have been widely incorporated in supplements and cosmetics applications for the purpose of combating free radicals within the skin. This does not mean antioxidants in a peptide moisturizer or peptide body lotion are a substitute for sunscreen, but can be used in conjunction to further protect the skin barrier. Please remember to always pair antioxidant products with sunscreen for full protection against ROSs caused by UV rays. Some of the most well-known antioxidants in cosmetics3 are:
  • Vitamin A - (a.k.a retinoid acid) is a powerful antioxidant that quenches ROS but also functions to target fine lines and wrinkles, due to increasing skin cell turnover and collagen synthesis. However, certain common side effects like dryness and heightened sensitivity may make retinol unsuitable for long-term use. Additionally, retinol’s impact on the skin barrier can potentially compromise long-term skin health.
  • Vitamin C - (a.k.a. ascorbic acid) is the most abundant antioxidant in skin, as a derivative of glucose metabolism.4 More stable structures of vitamin C have been synthesized and used in skincare to increase product shelf life and maximize topical antioxidant effects, outside of helping with pigmentation issues.
  • Vitamin E - (a.k.a alphatocopherol) is one more potent antioxidant that primarily interacts with Vitamin C to prevent each other’s oxidation. Also a good moisturizing agent, Vitamin E protects from free radicals in oxidized lipids (oils) that are implicated in many inflammatory skin conditions.5
Other antioxidants are rising stars for addressing skin aging caused by free radicals. OneSkin’s OS-01 FACE Topical Supplement contains Pau Mulato and Pracaxi extracts which are emerging, botanically-derived antioxidant ingredients that are safe and effective for use in your daily product routine to protect against exposure to free radicals.

Can free radical damage be reversed in the skin?

There is not much scientific evidence about reversal of free radical damage with the use of antioxidants after the damage is dealt. Therefore, whenever possible, antioxidants should be used prior to any exposure to free radical-causing environments, such as UV exposure. One leading theory for antioxidants’ inability to repair DNA damage retroactively is perhaps due to cell quality control mechanisms that evaluate and discard unfit/badly damaged cells to maintain homeostasis. This means that rather than repairing the damage from free radicals, the body will often discard cells after the damage has been done.

How does age impact free radical damage?

Though our bodies naturally produce some antioxidant molecules to neutralize free radicals, in addition to repairing any mild damage that can occur from normal cell function, these processes gradually deteriorate upon aging, or become prematurely stunted with unprotected sun exposure or radiation. Using sunscreen (with a SPF above 30) in conjunction with OneSkin’s Topical Supplements will protect skin and help prevent many negative molecular processes that ultimately contribute to skin aging.

How can I protect my skin from free radicals?

Improving innate antioxidant capacities is one of the best ways to combat oxidative stress and to alleviate symptoms of skin pigmentation and aging. Dietary changes to incorporate more antioxidant-rich foods is one method to reduce systemic oxidative stress. However, the best method for protecting skin from free radicals is topical/local administration of antioxidant compounds, usually delivered in the form of topical skin care products. While vitamins A, C, E are popular skin care choices, botanical antioxidants within OneSkin’s OS-1 FACE and OA-01 BODY products are worthy contenders to stop oxidative stress in its tracks. Additionally, OneSkin’s proprietary peptide, OS-01, has been shown to aid in UV damage repair, therefore when paired with antioxidants, OneSkin’s Topical Supplements offer a highly effective defense against UV damage.

Key Takeaways

  1. Free radicals are unstable molecules that steal electrons from important biological molecules like DNA and protein, permanently altering their structure and function.
  2. Lifestyle choices can increase free radicals in the body, overwhelming natural antioxidant defenses to cause DNA damage or even generate mutations that lead to skin damage and skin cancer.
  3. Oxidative stress from UV exposure in skin cells is one of the main causes of skin aging.
  4. Skin changes such as a weakened skin barrier, and visible signs, including wrinkles, dullness, discoloration, and redness/inflammation are symptoms of free radical damage.
  5. Free radicals are stabilized by powerful antioxidants in the body or in topical skin care products.
  6. Antioxidants should be used prior to any activity that could lead to free radical production, such as sun exposure.
  7. OneSkin’s Topical Supplements contain several of the best antioxidants for skin, along with a proprietary peptide which has been scientifically proven to aid in UV damage repair, thereby combating sun damage and subsequent free radical development to keep skin healthy, longer, and mitigate/delay visible signs of aging.


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