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Skincare Scare: Battling Free Radicals

Take a glance at a skincare advertisement or two, and the enemy becomes clear. Free radicals are waging war on our skin and physical health from all sides. They must be—otherwise, why would so many facial moisturizers and eye creams claim to block them? But even if we understand that free radicals are bad and that antioxidant-packed products reduce their effects, most of us without a science background don’t know why that’s true.
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There’s a scene in the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs that never fails to make me laugh. Abby, a woman who doesn’t pay much attention to makeup, is standing at a cosmetics counter in the mall when a saleswoman tells her, “We also have this new face cream, which neutralizes the free radicals that attack the skin. Let me ask you—what’s your skin regime?” Abby replies, “My regime? The regime from which the radicals are trying to get free? Are we selling face cream or staging a coup?” 

Radicals Gone Rogue
Simply put, a free radical is an atom or molecule with a single electron in need of a partner. It seeks out that extra electron in other cells in the body, which results in badly damaged cells that are unable to combat diseases and degenerative processes as well. A popular theory that a physician and chemist named Denham Harman developed in the 1950s links free radicals to aging, and considering the way they desecrate cells so quickly (also known as oxidative damage), the connection makes sense. The same thing that happens when iron rusts or an apple turns brown after it’s cut and left out happens after our cells are exposed to free radicals, leaving us vulnerable to wrinkles, poor eyesight, cancer, and organ diseases. 

Because free radicals are so caustic, it seems surprising that our bodies produce them naturally. Cells simply doing their thing end up discharging free radicals; luckily, we have—or should have—plenty of antioxidants in our system to neutralize them. The problem is that free radicals don’t come just from the inside. As skincare companies are quick to alert us, many things in the outside world are sources of free radicals—cigarette smoke, pollution, sunlight, and even alcohol. A 1999 study at the University of Pennsylvania published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation found that elevated blood alcohol levels produce more free radicals, which then contribute to alcohol-related liver problems. 

Free radicals are also found in the water we drink and the food we eat, thanks to industrial runoff and pesticides. We’re hit with an excess of them on a daily basis, more than our bodies are equipped to deal with—which is why we need an excess of antioxidants in our diets as proper ammunition. 

Aid from Antioxidants
For years, we’ve been hearing about the link between antioxidant-rich foods and good health. That’s because they work efficiently against free radicals in two ways (depending on the type of antioxidant)—they stop free radicals from re-creating themselves and they break up already formed chains. Fruits and vegetables are often touted as the best ways to get antioxidants, but they’re present in almost all of the food groups. A USDA study conducted in 2004 and published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry compiled a list of the foods with the highest concentration of antioxidants within a serving. Among fruits, cranberries, blackberries, and blueberries took the lead. Russet potatoes and artichokes took top honors in the vegetable category. Beyond fruits and veggies, spices like cinnamon and oregano, as well as nuts, such as hazelnuts and pecans, were found to be antioxidant-rich. Various oils, whole grains, beef, and fish also have beneficial vitamins. 

Because antioxidants perform different functions within the body, it’s important to get them from a variety of food sources. Many vitamins aren’t produced naturally in the body, so diet is one of the surest ways to absorb them successfully. Though there are vitamin supplements out there, research has shown that diet-based treatment is much more effective. Getting megadoses of antioxidants via supplements could be potentially harmful. A 1997 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that participants given anywhere from sixty to two hundred milligrams of vitamin E daily had stronger immune systems. But when the dosage was increased to eight hundred milligrams, it resulted in lower immunity than not taking vitamin E at all. 

A healthful, varied diet is the best way to fight against free radicals. Skincare lines that contain beneficial ingredients like vitamin E and beta-carotene (a derivative of vitamin A) can help, but what’s most important is what we give our bodies to work with on the inside. That means eating well, limiting alcohol consumption and exposure to outside toxins, and, as the cosmetic-counter lady suggested in The Truth About Cats and Dogs, developing a protective skin regime. Aging may be a natural part of life, just as free radicals are a natural part of our bodies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put off looking that way or feeling that way with a little effort.

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