All cells in the human body use oxygen to break down the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that give them energy. Just as a car creates exhaust as it burns fuel, metabolically active cells produce byproducts called free radicals. These are oxygen molecules that have lost one electron (a negatively charged particle) and seek to stabilise themselves by stealing an electron from a nearby molecule. Free radicals also increase in our bodies when we do not get enough sleep, are under stress, smoke, consume too much alcohol, live in pollution, or eat a higher amount of sugar or processed foods - and even if we exercise too much.
These free radicals are not choosy about where they get their electrons and they will readily attach to and damage, proteins, fats, and other chemicals in the body. When free radicals attack DNA, a cell's genetic material, they may induce the cell to undergo changes that lead to uncontrolled cell proliferation which can result in, ultimately, cancer.
Fortunately, cells come equipped with a defence system for combating free radicals. They naturally produce a variety of antioxidants, chemicals that limit the activity of free radicals and repair the damage caused. However, some researchers believe that, as people age, their cells generate fewer of these protective compounds, or the ones they produce become less efficient at doing their job. Theoretically, an age-related increase in uncontrolled free radicals may explain why many diseases become more common as people grow older.
The problem is that external factors like pollution, environmental toxins, poor diet, and sun exposure accelerate the production of free radicals so our own stores of antioxidants often can't keep up with the job of neutralizing them. The result is inflammation and cell damage.
This is what happens to the skin, especially when it is exposed to sunlight. It is the major cause of the wrinkling, sagging and poor tone associated with ageing. Let me make this clear, exposure of the skin to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, particularly its UV-B component (280-320 nm), from the sun results in erythema, edema, hyperplasia, hyperpigmentation, sunburn cells, immunosuppression, photoaging, and skin cancer. Amongst these various adverse effects of UV-B radiation, skin cancer and photoaging are of great concern. More recent changes in lifestyle have led to a significant increase in the amount of UV-B radiation people receive leading to a surge in the incidence of skin cancer and photoaging. As these trends are likely to continue in the foreseeable future, the adverse effect of UV-B has become a major concern.
The most abundant dietary sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables, the more colourful the better. So if you are eating about 5-13 servings you may not need to worry. However most of us, even with discipline and good intentions, don't manage to keep our diets up to this on a daily basis. So it makes sense to take some supplements to ensure an antioxidant “safety net”.
Topical antioxidants must be able to penetrate the upper layers of dead skin and carry the effect into the deeper dermis to reach the cells that need help. The most powerful of topical antioxidants include vitamins C and E and ferulic acid.
Ferulic acid is found in the leaves and seeds of plants where it protects the organism from ultraviolet ray damage. When applied to human skin the substance works in a similar manner to neutralize free radicals which could cause oxidative damage to cell membranes and DNA. Vitamin C (also known as L-ascorbic acid) has been shown to be an effective anti-photoaging agent. Additionally, alpha-tocopherol, or vitamin E also exhibits strong antioxidant effects when applied topically.
So you will see the need for good cleaning before using antioxidants, which may usefully be the Alpha-Hydroxy acids. These include Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid. When using these AHA's start with a low concentration. Side effects include mild irritation and sun sensitivity, so it is also important to have a UVA/ UVB moisturiser to finish. Please also be aware that products containing Salicylic acid should not be used by pregnant or nursing women or those allergic to salicylates (as found in aspirin) - please consult you chosen healthcare professional before using AHA cleansers if at all unsure.
- Vitamin C - Water-soluble and must be replenished daily. Plays a major role in collagen production and is essential to reducing inflammation. A deficiency can show up as sagging skin and slow healing.
- Vitamin E - fat-soluble, stabilises cell membranes, protects against free radical damage.
- Alpha Lipoic Acid - Known as the universal antioxidant because it works in both the fat and the water soluble parts of the cells. This also has the useful ability to protect other antioxidants in the body, keeping them working for longer.
- Grape Seed Extract - Like ALA, it is stronger than both Vitamin C and Vitamin E. This also improves the strength of the capillary walls and improves collagen production.
- Beta-Carotenes (aka Vitamin A) - Protects skin, hair, vision, and also respiratory and digestive systems. The precursor to Vitamin A, but without the potential for toxicity.
- Co Q10 - The antioxidant that is most easily depleted in the skin, from exposure to the sun. It is fat soluble so is concentrated in the cell membrane. This is also critical to cellular metabolism, thus is important in cell repair.
Other anti-oxidants include the minerals Zinc, Chromium and Selenium.
Polyphenols and Anti-inflammatories
Mention has also been made of skin “inflammation”. Examples of this skin inflammation include: allergic reactions, acne, flushing, hives, and the symptoms associated with disorders like Rosacea and Psoriasis. Inflammation is a sign that the body is attempting to protect itself from trauma. Over time, this protection backfires, creating an excessive amount of free radicals and leading to water loss in the skin cells. What can help halt this process are antioxidants that double as topical anti-inflammatories. It has been suggested that polyphenols or plant derived antioxidants are especially beneficial.
Sources of polyphenols include green tea, white tea, grape seed extract, olive oil, dark chocolate, and pomegranates. Here's how they work:
- Grape seed extract: Free radical scavengers that strengthen and repair damaged cells with flavanoids.
(This is also a rich source of Essential Fatty Acids.)
- Green tea: Calms the visible and internal signs of inflammation.
- Pomegranate: Reinforces the skin's structural fibers and boots sun protection.
The benefits of antioxidants are closely related to eye health, for example. There are many antioxidants that help promote good eye health by preventing macular degeneration, cataracts or either eye illnesses that especially found in the elderly.
Antioxidants also keep the immune system healthy and balanced and can even boost a weakened immune system. They can prevent degeneration of the brain functions and also maintain the integrity of the nervous system, promote good cardiovascular health, and also assist in good DNA.
Some antioxidants are harmful if taken incorrectly. There are plants that produce acids that are indigestible in our systems and these should be avoided if possible. There are also toxicity limits that can be exceeded with improper use of a particular antioxidant, so once again care must be taken in terms of these products, especially if you are using processed antioxidants.
Remember before taking any anti-aging antioxidant, it's important to check with your chosen healthcare practitioner. While many have positive effects on our body for both aging and health related issues, mixing particular antioxidants with each other or other medication could have adverse effects! Please also note that I am NOT a Doctor. I am a medical nurse and qualified beautician. This article must not be taken as, nor is it, medical advice.