I was asked today about free radicals. The circumstances meant that a complicated heavy-science answer wouldn’t really be right, so I responded along the lines of what I’ve written here. It’s simplifying a bit – or a lot, really – but hopefully makes it seem a little clearer.
A free radical is a molecule with one spare electron that bounces around until it finds a molecule with space for that electron.
So imagine two singles at the bar. When they find each other, if it’s a good match, they stabilise and things are cool. If it’s a bad match, someone gets hurt.
A free radical meeting up with an antioxidant is a good match.
A free radical meeting up with a skin cell is a bad match. The cell is weakened and unable to protect itself as well as it could before. At first it doesn’t show, but cells are like the lonely hearts at the bar, vulnerable to the predatory charms of a radical. Over time, that cell hooks up with another free radical, and another, and another, getting progressively more damaged and stressed.
This stress is known as oxidative stress. It can damage cell structures, weaken or kill cells, potentially causing skin damage, inflammation, mutations, or other problems we’d rather avoid.
And why is it called oxidative stress?
When a molecule loses an electron, it’s called oxidation. When a molecule gains an electron, it’s called reduction. If that sounds counter intuitive to you (ie to say something is reduced when it gains something) please don’t worry. You’re right. All these years after studying this stuff at uni, I still think they could have found a better name for this process. And really, the bar analogy still works. The lonely heart skin cell has gained a predatory free radical and is left damaged. That’s a loss. Poor skin cell.
For what it’s worth, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to use the word oxidation either, because it’s not necessarily anything to do with oxygen. It’s about the transfer of electrons. It might involve oxygen, or might not.
And while we’re talking about oxygen, we might as well close the loop so that we get back to the original question of free radicals!
When our bodies process oxygen, it gets converted into different forms of oxygen, some of which we refer to as chemically reactive oxygen species. The particular oxygen species thought to be most destructive for skin are known as free radicals. The production of free radicals and other reactive oxygen species is a normal and essential biological process and usually the body keeps itself in balance. Sometimes, however, the levels of these oxygen species can elevate and the body’s usual processes can’t keep up.
For example, during the summer, with all the additional exposure to UV rays and heat, it’s a bit like having free booze on New Years Eve. Everyone’s a bit too free and loose, the free radicals are even more predatory than usual and it all ends in tears. Poor skin cells.
What we really want, are some Happy Ever Afters… Lots of antioxidants to get those predatory radicals into stable relationships 🙂
So… to play matchmaker for your vulnerable skin cells, you need to think about how to keep those predators away whether they’re zooming in via Tinder, eHarmony or dinner parties by well-meaning mutual friends.
Start with what you eat. What you drink. And what you apply to your skin. These all matter.
And to carry that metaphor an extra step (ok, so perhaps we’re working it a bit too hard) then please make sure the nice potential partners outweigh the predatory potential partners. Buy quality and avoid the sources that are over processed, use dodgy ingredients and/or have fake IDs. It’s actually not that hard. If you need a few tips, we can help – there’s information on our website, come to one of our workshops, or let us be the responsible adult in your relationship with skincare 🙂
As I said, this is simplified, but hopefully it gets the idea across.
Til soon –