You’ve undoubtedly heard of Anti-oxidants. Maybe in relation to anti-aging or getting a glowing complexion. If you’re a red-blooded American girl with tons of pretty little containers full of serums, moisturizers, toners and every other kind of goo that goes on your face, you’re probably the proud owner of a few antioxidants yourself. But how exactly do they work? What does one do with one’s antioxidants? How much substance is there to these claims that they’ll make your skin smoother than a baby’s bottom plus do your federal taxes (just kidding, I’ve never actually heard that last one, but if you know of a product that does that, quit holding out on me please)?
It all comes down to this: antioxidants counteract the negative effects of free radicals.
Admittedly, that statement likely did nothing to clarify the subject. If anything, it made you wonder what a free radical was. Pretty much any conversation about antioxidants has to begin with this little detour, so here goes:
What is a free radical?
Free radicals are molecules with a chip on their shoulder; specifically, a chip in the form of a missing electron. This missing electron makes them highly unstable jerks intent on taking other molecules’ electrons. If one or a lot of these free radicals happen to be on your face or in your body, the electrons they’re siphoning are electrons your face and body were using. Like I said: Jerks.
If there are enough free radicals taking enough electrons, they can affect larger parts of cells that these molecules are part of. They can actually dick around with the DNA in your cells causing cells to mutate and not function as intended.
Suddenly, cells that are supposed to be collagen don’t know what they’re supposed to be anymore. They start dying their hair black and writing crappy sad songs and drinking carbonated beverages at school (I don’t know, is that bad? I don’t have kids). Free radicals really can cause things like wrinkles in this way, but some of the more insidious effects of this oxidative stress can be things like weakening the immune functions of the skin and other organ systems making you more susceptible to disease, or causing cancer.
So where do we pick up these free radicals and how can one avoid them?
You can get more than your fair share of these bitches from pollutants in the air, smoking, drinking alcohol, processed food and sun exposure. However, even if you avoid all of these things, free radicals are also a natural byproduct of your body converting fuel into energy.
Before the freaking out commences (“The free radicals are calling from inside the house!”) it’s probably a good time for me to take it back to the antioxidants.
Antioxidants counteract free radicals on a molecular level by donating their extra electrons to free radicals, which helps to stabilize them.
So, we’ve found the eternal fountain of youth! Hallelujah! Where can I get these magnificent buggers to slap indiscriminately on my face parts? Not so fast. Although anti-oxidants have some awesome properties it’s important to know how to wield them or you won’t get your money’s worth.
A few tips on purchasing & using products with antioxidants
There’s evidence that suggests antioxidants are extremely specialized molecules. Using just one won’t have the desired effects. A couple in vivo clinical trials (conducted on live humans, as opposed to isolated “test tube” trials) aimed at the effectiveness of free radicals to repair oxidative stress for smokers and people at risk for heart disease yielded interesting results. Half of the participants in both studies received doses of vitamin E and C. The other half of participants were given a placebo. Those taking the antioxidant elixir actually had increased the development of lung cancer and cardiac incidences respectively. The effect was so great that both studies ceased their treatment earlier than planned. That’s right, at least 2 clinical trials had to shut down early because they were causing the very diseases they were tasked with finding a treatment for.
While this sounds…slightly terrifying…there’s also a great deal of evidence that antioxidants behave in a beneficial manner when mixed with a large variety of other types of antioxidants.
Scientists theorize that the reason such a high dose of these antioxidants had the opposite effect was that they work best in tandem with lots of other antioxidants. A well-rounded supplement, or better yet, the natural variety found in fresh fruits and vegetables. For example: Vitamin C behaves as an antioxidant with one molecule, but as a prooxidant (a blanket term for any substance that causes oxidative stress – free radicals fall under this category) with other molecules.
Therefore, slathering your body in just vitamin E won’t do much good by itself. However, if you combine lots of different antioxidants together, you’re onto something.
It’s the difference in having The whole A-Team or just one. Let’s be real, Faceman is pretty much just a cheesy pick up artist, Bosco can’t get on an airplane, Murdock is literally an insane person and Hannibal? With those gloves, you know that if he didn’t have the team he’d be a straight-up serial killer.
The next thing to keep in mind is that while antioxidants have a stabilizing effect on other molecules they are also unstable themselves. They can only give so much before they become inert. If a product with a lot of antioxidants in it is exposed to air and uv light you can use up all of the anti-oxidants in your product before they actually get to your face. If you have found something you think is a great formula and it comes in a jar, think again. You may as well spend $40 on silly putty to slather on your face because you’ll only be getting the benefits of your product the first few times you used it. Not to mention those jars are the least sanitary delivery system of all.
It’s better to get an antioxidant-rich product that’s sold in a tube or pump bottle where air exposure, and consequently oxidation, is limited. Breakable capsules are also a great way to get antioxidants to your face with minimal exposure to the elements.
By now, you’re probably under the impression that antioxidants are fairly delicate. In addition to all of the concerns you might have about whether these antioxidants are potent enough, you’ll want to consider bioavailability. So you’ve got your antioxidant, and it’s a good one, but now you want to get it to where it’s going to do the most good. The trouble with just slapping an antioxidant on your skin (and even ingesting them) is that your body has booby traps in place to prevent outside stuff from getting in. After all, that’s one of your skin’s primary functions. An antioxidant won’t do much good simply sitting on your outermost layer of skin. As your skin produces new cells it pushes old ones toward the outer-most walls of your epidermis. The further away those skin cells get from the specialized cells that made them, the deader they get. Just setting an antioxidant on top of these mostly dead skin cells isn’t going to do them much good.
First of all, there are products that aren’t ever meant to go deeper than the surface layer of your skin. One of the primary criteria that makes a cleanser a good cleanser is that after you’re done washing it off there’s no trace of it left. So, a cleanser that’s touts its antioxidant-rich formula is pretty much bullshit. Maybe it has lots of antioxidants, but unless you’re shooting yourself up with it, they’re not getting where they need to go (P.S. – never shoot yourself up with a cleanser…or anything else that’s only supposed to go on your face for that matter). A scrub would be the same story.
However, a toner, moisturizer, serum, or certain types of masks can be great products to get an antioxidant a little deeper into your skin. A couple of tips that’ll boost their effectiveness are:
- Rinse your skin with warm water to open pores and make skin cells more pliable. Cool water makes your skin constrict to hold in heat, but this affect also means that products won’t be able to get through the cells as easily. Warm water has been getting a bad rap lately for having a drying effect on skin. But opening your pores is like opening your heart! If you’re always closed up tight you could be missing out on good stuff that wants in as well as the bad.
- If you don’t already use some sort of exfoliant, I highly recommend it. Not only does it help kick your skin into gear if it was behaving a little sluggish, but scrubs will get a few more dud skin cells out of the way. That’s a few less skin cells that your antioxidant needs to get through. If you have sensitive skin, you might consider an enzyme peel for this step in lieu of a scrub.
- After applying the product to your face, warm your hands up by rubbing them together quickly to create friction. When your hands are nice and hot, place them on top of your face with light pressure (I primarily focus on my cheeks and forehead). This additional warmth and even pressure helps keep your skin pliable for a little longer, giving the product a chance to be absorbed into the deeper layers.
When I originally started writing this post, I was going to list a bunch of antioxidants, but I decided it would be a wast of space to put here. There are so many that come labelled in the form of vitamins and plant extracts that it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to try and write an exhaustive list. Instead, when I do a profile on any specific antioxidants in the future I’ll be sure to link back to here and vice-versa.