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An expert explains why you should be mindful of free radicals

Understanding how to keep harmful free radicals in check is the key to youthful skin and good health

The term free radicals is a huge buzzword in skincare and, rightly so. Every day we come into contact with these substances which are produced naturally in the body and via external environmental sources.

But what exactly are free radicals and why should we be so mindful of them?  “Free radicals are atoms, or molecules that are missing one or more electrons,” says EV Expert and Founder of DermRefine Skin Clinic, Balsam Alabassi. “Atoms need to have an even number of electrons to keep them stable–if one or more are missing this creates a highly reactive, unstable molecule that seeks to bond with other molecules.

“Free radicals behave like scavengers, hunting for their much needed electron, for example, from skin or blood cells, leading to subsequent damage,” she continues. “Excess exposure to free radicals may lead to cell damage, disease and premature ageing. They accumulate in the cells leading to protein, lipid and DNA damage."

Alabassi says that as well as causing premature wrinkles, uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation, free radicals may also increase your risk of developing health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cataracts, autoimmune conditions and cancer.

How are free radicals generated?

“The body produces free radicals naturally through various normal, biological functions,” says Alabassi. “For example, when you digest and breakdown food to produce energy, or as a result of stress and inflammation.

"In addition, external sources have a role to play in the formation of free radicals–these include certain medication and drugs, X-rays, smoking, pesticides, pollutants, chemicals, heavy metals, bacterial infection and ultraviolet (UV) radiation through excessive sun exposure.”

The role of antioxidants

An excess production of free radicals triggers a process known as oxidative stress, where free radicals are created more quickly than they can be neutralised. The good news is that antioxidants can provide a powerful defence mechanism, confirms Alabassi, as they function by donating electrons to free radicals, which in turn helps to neutralise free radicals and diminish damage.

Your body naturally produces antioxidants such as glutathione, CoQ10 and alpha lipoic acid. Other important antioxidants such as vitamins A, E, C, selenium, zinc, carotenoids, flavonoids and polyphenols can be obtained from a healthy diet and supplements. To protect skin, you can also apply skincare containing antioxidant ingredients topically. Problems occur if your diet isn’t nutritious, you consume too many processed foods and drinks and your exposure to environmental sources of free radicals is high.

How to fight free radicals

“The objective is to avoid oxidative stress where there is an excessive amount of free radicals and not enough antioxidants to eradicate them,” says Alabassi, who recommends the following tactics:


Eat antioxidant-rich foods
Good sources include: fresh fruit and vegetables–broccoli, leafy greens, kale, beetroot, carrots, artichoke, asparagus, apples, lemons, blueberries, blackberries, bilberries, pomegranate, red grapes, onions, coriander–pecans, peppers, chilli, dark chocolate (over 70 per cent cacao), herbs and spices including oregano, cinnamon, clove, turmeric, ginger and basil.

Avoid pro-inflammatory food 
Try to steer clear of processed foods, snacks such as crisps and biscuits, and refined grains such as white rice, bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals.

Reduce or cut out sugar
Free radicals are produced naturally where they are detoxified by the liver. Excessive amounts of sugar lead to an increased amount of free radical production, adding an unnecessary burden on the liver. This results in inflammation which initiates the formation of more free radicals, creating a vicious cycle.  

Top up on antioxidants with supplements 
Opt for vitamin C, quercetin, glutathione, resveratrol, selenium, lutein, astaxanthin.

Lifestyle factors

  • Avoid excessive sun exposure at peak times (eg: midday-3pm) and wear appropriate protective clothing–hats, sunglasses, long sleeves. 
  • Apply SPF to all exposed areas of the skin. Reapply regularly throughout the day, and throughout the year, to reduce the risk of premature ageing and skin cancer. 
  • Quit smoking.
  • Avoid sunbeds.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.
  • Manage stress with daily mindfulness and self-care. Stress causes chronic inflammation that increases the formation of free radicals.

Topical ingredients

Antioxidant skincare can help protect your skin from free radical damage. Ingredients include:

Vitamin C 
Vitamin C functions as an antioxidant, suppresses melanin production, increases collagen and offers natural protection against UV radiation.

A form of vitamin B3. Niacinamide is water soluble which means it is not stored in the body. Studies show that applied topically it can help to counteract the effects of free radicals. It has a brightening effect and can help improve texture and uneven skin tone, and minimise large pores, fine lines and wrinkles.

A natural antioxidant (polyphenol) compound that plants make to protect them against external aggressors (eg: bacteria, fungi, UV rays). It is found in the skin of red and purple grapes, berries and other fruits. In a recent Polish study (2022), it was found that resveratrol can help to protect against premature skin ageing and oxidative stress caused by UV rays.

Vitamin E 
A potent antioxidant that can help to protect skin damage caused by solar radiation. It also has moisturising and anti-inflammatory properties.

This derivative of antioxidant vitamin A, retinol stimulates collagen, accelerates cell renewal and helps to repair damaged DNA.   

Hyaluronic acid
Best known for its hydrating properties, it also has an antioxidant effect and can help protect the skin against free radical damage.

We recommend

Medik8 Daily Radiance Vitamin C SPF 30 is a two-in-one moisturiser that combines the protective, antioxidant benefits of vitamin C with a broad spectrum SPF30 sunscreen. Also, contains vitamin E and hyaluronic acid which work synergistically to boost the antioxidant effect.

La Roche Posay 10 Niacinamide Serum is formulated with 10% niacinamide and will suit the most sensitive complexions to protect, brighten, even skin tone and reduce the appearance of dark spots and pigmentation. This gentle serum also combines hyaluronic acid to help retain skin moisture.

Skinceuticals B E Resveratrol Night Serum contains resveratrol, baicalin (flavonoid derived from Chinese herbs) and vitamin E to help neutralise free radicals and strengthen your skin’s natural defences. Apply at night to help improve skin tone, firmness and diminish fine lines.

ZO Skin Health Daily Power Defence is a potent antioxidant formula that combines an exclusive plant stem cell complex with vitamins E and A. Helps to neutralise free radicals while leaving skin smooth and hydrated. This is also one to try if you’re looking to soothe and calm redness-prone skin.

Avene A-Oxitive Antioxidant Defense Serum is a light serum, formulated with therapeutic, natural Avene thermal water, vitamins C and E and hyaluronic acid to provide a gentle yet potent shot of antioxidant protection.

Paula’s Choice Resist Anti-Ageing Ultra Light Antioxidant Serum contains quercetin, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. Quercetin is a plant compound with powerful antioxidant properties found in foods such as onions, apples and berries. Applied topically it helps to reduce the harmful effects of UV radiation on the skin, has a soothing anti-inflammatory effect and helps fight free radical damage.

The Ordinary Resveratrol Serum 3% + Ferulic Acid 3% combines high concentrations of two of the most powerful antioxidants, resveratrol derived from Japanese Knotweed, and ferulic acid to maximise protective benefits (traditional formulations tend to use 1% resveratrol and 0.5% ferulic acid). Works well on all skin types, including sensitive skin.

Balsam Alabassi, Owner and Founder of Dermrefine Skin Clinic

I am an Independent Prescriber and hold level 7 in Aesthetic Medicine. I adopt a personalised approach to provide you...

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