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Beauty is a science. While we've talked about how free radical–causing environmental factors, like pollution, can cause irreparable damage to the skin (hello, premature ageing!) how well do we really understand what's happening? And how are free radicals affecting other areas, like our hair? Because knowledge equals power, we're going to get down to the fundamentals of how free radicals do us wrong, the exposure risk factors, and why they are beauty's natural arch nemesis.
But every villain needs a hero. Enter: Antioxidants. With free radical–fighting properties not unlike superpowers, antioxidants are said to be the key to preventing free radical damage . . . and may even be able to repair existing beauty trauma.
Keep reading to dive deeper into this fascinating beauty study, and discover which antioxidant-packed products you should consider adding to your arsenal.
What Are Free Radicals?
At the most basic level, a free radical is a molecule with an extra electron — remember electron and proton pairings from high school chemistry? These molecules are highly unstable, targeting and attacking other cells in the body by either stealing an electron or "donating" their own — creating even more radical cells.
While our body naturally produces free radicals, it needs to maintain a delicate balance of unstable and stable cells to remain healthy. If there are too many free radicals roaming our body leaving cell destruction in their wake . . . the least drastic result is premature ageing. We won't list all the potential conditions and diseases here, but those who like to Google, be warned: it is a very sombre list.
For the most part, a healthy body will do a great job of keeping free radical numbers in check. However, it's when we expose ourselves to external factors that generate even more free radical production is when our bodies get overwhelmed. You won't be surprised by the list of environmental factors either: air pollution, cigarettes, UV rays and other types of radiation, certain industrial chemicals and pesticides.
As inflammation is also a cause, diet factors, such as junk food and alcohol, can pump up the number of free radicals your body produces. These are all elements we know we are supposed to avoid to keep in "good health", but it's all-the-more important when you understand why.
How Do They Affect Our Skin and Hair?
Cellular damage is bad for our overall health, and that will often manifest itself first in our skin and hair. When the levels of free radicals versus antioxidants is out of whack, our body experiences oxidative stress, which speeds up the ageing process with free radicals attacking the DNA cells and proteins important for keeping our skin, hair and nails in prime condition.
In the skin, this causes a loss in elasticity by damaging collagen fibres bit by bit until you've completely lost that shiny, fresh-faced bounce to your face.
The proteins that keep our hair healthy, shiny and strong also take a hit from free radicals. With oxidative stress kicking the ageing process into overdrive, our hair can become rougher, lose its lustre and start greying earlier. There is also evidence to suggest that free radical–related damage can also lead to thinning and hair loss.
Why Are Antioxidants So Great?
Like we said, every story needs a hero! Luckily for us, antioxidants are our biggest ally in fighting free radicals. The clue is in the name: Free radicals cause oxidative stress, so antioxidants are the answer. You can think of antioxidants as scavenger cells — they can't be damaged by the unstable cells and instead find the free radicals and can donate their own electrons to neutralize the cell once again. With enough antioxidants working together, this creates a chain effect to return the numbers of free radical cells to a safe level for your body to manage naturally.
The Free Radical–Fighting Toolkit
Now that we're wise to the reasons why pollution, sun exposure, smoking and poor diet are so bad for us, we're in a better position to improve things. Your body is already doing the heavy lifting, but there are some antioxidant-boosting foods and products you can add to your routine to help slow the ageing process.
Including antioxidant-rich foods in your regular diet is the best way to give your beauty a boost. Blueberries are renowned for being jam-packed with antioxidants, and as a general rule, any richly coloured fruit or vegetable is a powerful source.
Beauty products are also becoming more sophisticated in how they slow the ageing process and free radical damage.
For hair, Herbal Essences have just launched a bio:renew range targeted to this exact problem. The new line of products champion a powerful antioxidant blend of histidine (a naturally-occurring antioxidant), aloe and sea kelp to remove free radical build-up every time you wash. Plus, in typical Herbal Essences style, each product smells like a tropical getaway — our favourite is the White Grapefruit & Mosa Mint Shampoo ($12 from Coles) for this very reason!
When it comes to skincare, the most vital step is to wash your face before bed every single night — no excuses! Tiny fragments of pollution can cling to the skin, work their way into your pores overnight and cause free radical–causing inflammation. Next, look to include products with Vitamins A, C or E, and antioxidants including resveratrol or niacinamide. SK-II's R.N.A Power Radical New Age cream ($245) contains the latter, and has rave reviews on Sephora.