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The Truth About Antioxidants

May 9, 2018 Reviewed by Marta 0 Comments

Antioxidants are important anti-agers and we should be looking for skincare that is choc full of them. Or should we? Is it possible that an excess of antioxidants are damaging? I’ve always blithely assumed that antoxidants in my beauty products are a good thing, but recently I’ve been doing some research that has made me think again. Here’s the truth about antioxidants.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are complex molecules that are necessary to perform hundreds of important functions in the human body. There “endogenous” antioxidants that we produce ourselves including hormones, DHEA, melatonin and the enzymes superoxide dismutase, glutathione, glutathione peroxidase and catalase; and “exogenous” that the body gets from foods (source).

The most important role of antioxidants is to protect cells in the body from damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) free radicals. They do this by sacrificing their own electrons to break the free radical chain reaction. Some specialized intracellular antioxidants, such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase act as sentinels that monitor ROS concentrations. ROS damage is pretty devastating. It attacks lipids in the cell membranes, protein receptors, enzymes and DNA that can prematurely kill mitochondria (the source of energy in our cells) and ultimately cause cell death.

So antioxidants that protect us against ROS are necessary to our well-being and to protecting our skin from premature aging.

What to look for

There are countless antioxidants in and to help organize them, they are broken down into classes:

Vitamins - nutrients our bodies need to maintain basic functions and they also target free radicals to protect cells. Look for betacarotene and vitamins A, C (which is also a precursor for collagen) and E.

Minerals - required for the formation of bone, teeth and tissues. Antioxidant minerals include copper, zinc and selenium.

Phytochemicals - botanical compounds that are responsible for essential biochemical processes in the body when consumed from foods or acquired from extracts in topical skincare.

Enzymes - protein molecules that control biological processes and functions in the body. Enzyme antioxidants work with other antioxidants to catalyze reactions and prevent free radical activity. Examples include superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase.

Co-enzyme - non-protein substances necessary for the function of an enzyme. They include some of the vitamins and minerals mentioned above.

Amino acids - proteins that catalyze chemical reactions in a cell. The ones with antioxidant activity are tryptophan, tyrosine, cysteine and homocysteine

Hormones - signaling molecules produced by glands

Why less is more

The most important thing I have learned about antioxidants is that hunting down a serum with highest dose of vitamin C (or whatever) is not what I should be doing. In fact, high doses of single antioxidants can be counter-productive. Here’s why.

Antioxidants function and support each other whether as co-factors, reactors or recyclers. This dynamic relationship between antioxidants is referred to as antioxidant synergism (source). However, many of us hone in on the supplements missing in our diets by taking multivitamins or isolated, man-made nutraceuticals. This is often marketed as the “inside-out approach” to skin care. However, ingestion of large quantities of isolated, fragmented nutrients can be harmful (source). Beta-carotene has been studied as an example of an antioxidant that doesn’t help protect against photoaging when taken orally - there is evidence that these molecules can also lead to deleterious effects when used indiscriminately. Same thing with high doses of vitamin E (source).

The authors of the report quoted above have a very clear conclusion – small quantities of a variety of antioxidants that work syngergistically, rather than the maximum dose of one vitamin, is the way to go.

What antioxidants can do when they work collectively

-        Repair damaged molecules

-        Prevent oxidation

-        Chelate metal radical production (cell damage by metal ions)

-        Support gene expression (gene synthesis and production)

-        Shield DNA

-        Boost the immune system

-        Regulate DNA cell genetics (epigenetics)

-        Inhibit cell damaging enzymes

What they can do in our skincare

Topically applied antioxidants help prevent the effects of sun damage and oxidative stressors and they have a long scientific pedigree demonstrating this. However, a problem for topical antioxidants is the potential for instability and oxidation when exposed to light. In the past, chemists counteracted this issue by cranking up the concentrations. We now know that to be a bad thing. High doses can cause irritation and, as explained above, don’t work as well as a cocktail of multiple antioxidants. Happily, today’s formulators have choices of more stable ingredients and new delivery systems such as micro emulsions, nanoparticles and liposomes.

See our community curated selection of antioxidants

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