The term free radicals has become a skincare buzz phrase — but what are these problem-causing culprits, and exactly how do we stop them? We have all the answers — from the underlying science to specific product recommendations — courtesy of complexion guru Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper).
What are free radicals?
Scientifically speaking, a free radical is an oxygen-containing molecule with an extra electron. This electron imbalance makes the molecule highly unstable, because the molecule will either give that electron away, or take one from a nearby molecule — setting off a chain reaction inside cells called oxidative stress.
Where do free radicals come from?
Free radicals are a normal byproduct of many different types of chemical processes. They can be produced internally within the body, or they can be created by external environmental factors.
Common sources of internal free radicals
- Normal energy metabolism within cell mitochondria
- Diminished blood flow to an area (known as ischemia/reperfusion injury)
Typical sources of external free radicals
- Certain drugs and pesticides
- Smoking (cigarettes and vaping)
- Unhealthy diet
- Sunlight (UV radiation)
- Environmental pollutants
How do you get rid of free radicals?
Under ideal conditions, your body is able to balance free radicals using molecules called antioxidants — substances that react with free radicals so they can’t bind to your cells and cause damage. Antioxidant sources have been widely publicized in recent years, so you’re probably familiar with this roundup:
- Fruits and vegetables — blueberries, spinach, kale, raspberries, goji berries
- Dark chocolate
- Spices — turmeric, clove, oregano
- Beverages — tea and coffee
- Vitamins and minerals — vitamins C and E, selenium, carotenoids (like beta-carotene and lycopene)
Do free radicals damage skin?
Modern life (read: junk food, pollution, sun exposure, etc.) means that many people don’t have enough antioxidants to balance out all that damage. Both internal and external free radicals cause skin damage in a variety of ways. When unstable molecules steal electrons from other molecules within your skin cells, it causes damage to the cell — including DNA. Signs of this damage show up readily in the skin, including:
- Fine lines and wrinkles
- Dark spots
- Uneven tone
- Lackluster complexion
How can you stop free radical damage to skin?
The best way to prevent skin damage from free radicals is to up your antioxidant levels. You can do this by consuming more antioxidant-rich foods, as well as by applying topical antioxidants to your skin. Here is a roundup of all-star antioxidant skincare ingredients:
- Vitamin A — aka retinoids, this powerful ingredient is proven to boost cell turnover
- Vitamin C — aka ascorbic acid, a very reactive, but highly effective vitamin for fighting environmental stress
- Vitamin B-3 — commonly called niacinamide, this antioxidant strengthens skin’s barrier
- Resveratrol — this substance guards against UV damage and boosts collagen production
- Green Tea Extract — a potent, calming de-puffer with anti-inflammatory properties
- Ferulic Acid — ideal for battling environmental damage, often combined with vitamin C
What skincare products contain antioxidants?
Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) formulated SLMD Skincare with a host of powerful, free radical fighting antioxidants. Here are her highlights:
- SLMD Skincare Salicylic Acid Cleanser — this deep-down, pore-purifying face wash is infused with soothing green tea extract to protect and cleanse skin without drying or stripping.
- SLMD Skincare Retinol Serum — a time-release formula that infuses skin overnight with vitamins A and C, speeding cell turnover and brightening to battle signs of aging.
- Dual Defender SPF 30 — a two-in-one broad-spectrum SPF and moisturizer that also contains free-radical fighting vitamin C to protect against environmental damage.
- SLMD Skincare Facial Moisturizer — an everyday, lightweight moisturizer formulated with vitamin C that helps prevent the oxidative stress that leads to premature aging.
- SLMD Skincare Daily Bright Radiance Cleanser — formulated with a cocktail of brightening enzymes and powerful antioxidants like vitamin C that instantly leaves skin looking healthier, brighter, and feeling smoother.
- SLMD Skincare All Bright Niacinamide Toner — powered by a blend of clinically proven antioxidants like niacinamide, vitamin C, and resveratrol, this gentle, light-weight toner visibly brightens and tightens, exfoliates, and smooths.
- SLMD Skincare Bright Future Vitamin C Serum — a potent serum formulated with gold standard antioxidants ascorbic acid, niacinamide, ferulic Acid, and hyaluronic acid that visibly plumps and firms, and minimizes the appearance of pores, wrinkles, and dark spots.
Dr. Lee’s Last Word
Today we live with more environmental pollutants and stressors than ever before, and it is negatively impacting our skin and ultimately accelerating the skin’s aging process. Understanding that our skin is susceptible to these external factors like free radicals, pollution, UV rays, and harsh weather, we can better understand how to treat, protect, maintain and restore healthy complexions.
—Dr. Sandra Lee