What exactly are free radicals and how do antioxidants help?

Buzz-worthy beauty ingredients are as prevalent as Kim Kardashian’s backside, but not all of them have the goods to back up the hype. When it comes to antioxidants, however, the science is unequivocal: Antioxidants have been proven to be extremely effective in warding off free radicals generated by UV rays, infrared radiation, and pollution, as well as other irritants like alcohol and cigarette smoke. 

But what are free radicals exactly, and why are they bad for you? Well, essentially they’re molecules that have an extra electron. And while searching for an electron with which to pair, free radicals disrupt and mutate skin cells—either by stealing or donating an electron. This haphazard process of finding a mate is responsible for common signs of aging—fine lines, wrinkles, brown spots—as well as more serious skin conditions, including cancer. 

To get even more technical, Dallas-based celebrity esthetician Rénee Rouleau (whose clients include Demi Lovato and Anna Faris) says biochemists have identified 3 main types of free radicals: Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), Reactive Carbonyl Species (RCS), and Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS). ROS molecules—found in oxygen, cigarette smoke, sunlight, and smog—are the most damaging because “they attack all areas of cells, mutate DNA, destroy skin’s moisture barrier, damage the dermis layer of the skin, and cause inflammation,” says Rouleau. RCS molecules—which are present in alcohol and browned or charred foods (like crème brûlée!)—are responsible for loss of tone and premature wrinkles, while RNS molecules act primarily as a catalyst for the first 2.

If free radicals are the villains lurking in everything from your after-work cocktail to the sun’s rays, then antioxidants are the superheroes that work to prevent oxidation, neutralize unstable molecules, and resist cellular damage. And, like their evil counterparts, not all antioxidants are created equal. “Antioxidants work at different levels,” explains Michelle Copeland, MD assistant professor of plastic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and author of Change Your Look, Change Your Life. “They’re not all doing the same thing. Some are more effective on the production of pigment while others are more effective with collagen, which gets uncoiled when it’s stressed,” she adds. 

The bottom line? According to Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, D.C., “All antioxidants work in a similar fashion with a singular goal—to protect the skin from harmful free radicals before they can do damage.” And it’s never too early to start being proactive.