Plus, learn which antioxidants fight these unstable molecules.

By Jaclyn Smock
April 27, 2021
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If you have a basic understand of beauty jargon, you likely recognize the term "free radicals" as negative. And for good reason: Though they aren't regularly defined on skin care packaging or in brand mission statements, free radicals wreak havoc on skin, contributing to acne formation, premature aging, inflammation, and dullness. Unfortunately, your complexion interacts with these culprits every single day. To prevent the damage they cause—and reverse their effects—it's important to protect your visage (which is where an antioxidant-rich routine comes in). Ahead, dermatologists and leading experts break down everything you need to know about free radicals, including how to fight them. 

woman applying skincare at vanity mirror
Credit: Eva-Katalin / Getty Images

What are free radicals?

Free radicals, at their core, are unstable molecules. "They are missing an electron and frantically searching for another; they bond to other atoms or molecules to become whole and healthy again," explains Polly Roderick, the global senior brand manager at INIKA Organic. Ultimately, this process transforms once-healthy cells into other free radicals; together, the mass of unstable cells damage the skin.

Where do free radicals come from?

Our skin encounters free radicals daily. They are caused and created by a myriad of environmental factors, from air pollution and blue light (due to excessive screen time) to UV rays. "Free radicals can also result from high stress, smoking, and poor nourishment, which then cause our bodies to produce free radicals as a byproduct of its natural metabolic process," notes Irene Barsky, the founder of TAHNYC.

What do free radicals do to your skin?

Free radical exposure damages the skin, resulting in "the breakdown of skin-firming collagen beneath the surface. This causes wrinkles, hyperpigmentation via sun spots, and age spots," explains Dr. Howard Murad, the founder of Murad Skincare

How can the damage caused by free radicals be treated and prevented?

Wearing sunscreen and introducing antioxidants into your diet and skin care routine are your top defenses against free radicals. "Physical sunscreen filters, like zinc oxide, and vitamin C are the top ingredients to neutralize free radicals. Incorporating these ingredients into your routine will prevent oxidative damage, which is what leads to the wearing away of collagen and elastin caused by free radicals," shares Dr. Dennis Gross, a board-certified dermatologist. 

Which antioxidants fight free radicals?

If you're fighting free radicals through your product arsenal, look for formulas with retinol, vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin C. These antioxidants will "not only protect you from collagen and elastin degradation, but also help stimulate the production of collagen, which will help prevent and improve fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration," notes Dr. Gross. Another option? Add pomegranates and watermelon into your diet; both are rich in antioxidants.

Which antioxidants work well together?

Vitamin A, or retinol, is a powerhouse antioxidant that combats wrinkles and dark marks; it works synergistically with vitamin C. But each one should be applied separately—apply your vitamin C-based products in the morning (always finish with sunscreen!) and retinol formulas at night. "Vitamin C and retinol also pair well with vitamin E to combat against hyperpigmentation," notes Dr. Brian Keller, the chief science officer at Beverly Laboratories. In addition to packing your routine with antioxidants, Dr. Keller recommends "picking ingredients that help penetrate lower layers of the skin, like liposomes or lipid vesicles."

How long does it take to see results?

This depends on two main factors: The type and extent of your skin's damage and how consistent you are with your routine. It takes roughly 30 days, however, to see improvement and establish protection: "Integrate antioxidants and sunscreen into your daily routine for at least a month to protect your skin from daily encounters with free radicals," explains Dr. Gross.

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