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Free Radicals: A High Price to Pay

“Free radicals” -- the term is used quite often in skincare, but what does it really mean? Think of free radicals as thieves. These tiny but harmful molecules steal electrons from proteins, DNA and cell membranes because they’re missing one. In turn, the newly unstable particles take electrons from others, continuing a damaging cycle. Although everyday body processes naturally produce free radicals, environmental factors, including pollution and UV radiation, escalate the problem. So what does this mean? It means a whole lot of trouble for our skin. Free radicals accelerate skin aging, creating wrinkles, lines and uneven skin tone. Some studies suggest they may even cause heart damage, cancer, cataracts, and a weak immune system.
Fortunately, we are not helpless against these skin bandits. Antioxidants can help counteract the effects of free radicals by capturing and/or neutralizing them. Plus, antioxidants help to balance out the skin’s natural moisture content, alleviating dry or oily skin. You can find them in a variety of food products, including berries, broccoli, tomatoes, garlic, spinach, tea, carrots, soy and whole grains. To fight premature aging, antioxidants should also be ingredients in your skin care products. Look for products rich in acai and green tea for starters.
Lois Joy Johnson, author of 2011 Skin Care and Cosmetic Product Guide for Women Over 50: 150 Anti-aging Cosmetics and Beauty Products that Work, identifies 13 common antioxidants:
• Ferulic acid: Ferulic acid is found in plant cell walls, leaves and seeds. It is often used to enhance the effects of vitamins C and E, protecting the skin from UV damage. You can find them in oats, brown rice, whole wheat, peanuts, apples, and pineapples.
• Grape seed extract: Grape seed extract is one of the most potent antioxidants found in nature. It contains a special water-soluble bioflavonoid (a type of antioxidant) that is 20 to 50 times more effective than Beta-Carotene or Vitamins C and E.
• Green coffee extract: Green coffee extract contains chlorogenic acid that absorbs free oxygen radicals and deflects hydroxyl radicals, both which degrade the body’s cells. It is made from the green beans of the Coffea arabica plant.
• Green tea: Green tea comes from the plant, Camellia sinensis. It has the highest total flavonoid content but also contains other antioxidants. One cup of green tea contains the same amount of antioxidants as eight apples. It reduces visible signs of aging and damage and rejuvenates skin cells. It prevents the skin from sunburns and inflammation. It also has anti-acne, anti-psoriasis and anti-dandruff benefits. According to the National Cancer Institute, antioxidants in green tea, especially EGCG, may even inhibit cancer growth.
• Idebenone: Idebenone is a variation of our body’s natural antioxidant, Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). As we age, our bodies produce CoQ10 at a slower rate, so idebenone helps to make up for it. It penetrates well into the skin, firming and tightening it. Some believe that it reduces the breakdown of collagen after exposure to UVA light. It may also reduce wrinkle lines, but studies haven’t confirmed this yet.
• Lycopene: Lycopene is a natural pigment found in red fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes and watermelon. It reduces redness and cell damage from the sun and improves the skin’s texture. Lycopene also enhances the skin’s ability to produce collagen and reduces DNA damage that causes wrinkles.
• Pomegranate extract: Pomegranate extract is proven to help produce more collagen and rebuild the skin’s outer layers. It even boosts your SPF formulation by up to 20%, so you don’t have to reapply sunscreen as often when you’re tanning. According to researchers from the University of Wisconsin, pomegranate is a powerful anti-skin cancer ingredient.
• Quercetin: Quercetin effectively treats inflammatory conditions that affect the skin. It increases collagen and fibronectin production, which keep the joints and skin healthy. Use quercetin if you suffer from arthritis or wish to treat or prevent wrinkles. It may also help wounds heal more quickly by repairing damage to nerve tissues. Quercetin is found in almost all plant foods, especially black tea, broccoli, onions, red apples, and red wine.
• Selenium: Selenium is an essential trace mineral that works closely with vitamin E. It makes important antioxidant enzymes, while helping the body manufacture its own antioxidant, glutathione. Selenium may also prevent or slow tumor growth. Some believe that it boosts immune cell activity and suppresses blood vessel development to the tumor.
• Vitamin A: Vitamin A, known as a wrinkle eliminator, can reduce fine lines in the skin. It also helps in fading age spots. Its antioxidant properties improve skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. You can find vitamin A in rosehip and many other botanical nutrients.
• Vitamin C: Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) is known for its ability to reduce skin discoloration from sun damage, aging and acne. Research shows that it increases collagen production, while reducing fine lines and wrinkles. It is found in most fruits and vegetables, especially berries. By consuming vitamin C and applying it directly, you can optimize its effects. But be careful; vitamin C is often unstable, so make sure you read the labels.
• Vitamin E: Vitamin E actually refers to a group of eight fat-soluble vitamins that perform different functions in the body. The most active form, α-Tocopherol, is found in wheat germ oil, sunflower, and safflower oils. When taken orally, it helps the body create red blood cells and utilize vitamin K.
• Zinc: Zinc is a trace mineral present in all body tissues. It helps the body process the essential fatty acids needed to heal wounds, eczema, psoriasis, and acne. Zinc also provides UV protection, boosts the immune system and decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
After reading this, you’re probably thinking that all you need is a whole bunch of antioxidants for perfect skin. But remember, antioxidants aren’t the only ingredient for healthy and clear skin. Make sure to incorporate gentle cleansers, topical exfoliants and sunscreen into your daily routine too.