Updated 4/19/20. You may have heard the term “oxidative stress” being thrown around in relation to skincare, but what does it mean? Oxidative stress is something that can harm your skin, leading to the appearance of wrinkles, brown spots and inflammation. If you’re still unclear about how oxidative stress can affect your skin, I’ve got a great experiment that will show you exactly what it does. I’ll also share my expert skincare advice for preventing its negative impacts.
What is Oxidative Stress?
First, let me give you a quick science lesson (I know all my readers are serious skincare enthusiasts and love to get all the details).
Most scientists agree that one of the primary reasons we age is because unstable electrons in molecules (called free radicals) attack healthy cells and change their composition. This then causes the cells to no longer function the way normal, younger cells do. Simply put, we age due to changed cells. This occurs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Molecular biologists have identified three families of free radicals:
- Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS)
- Reactive Carbonyl Species (RCS)
- Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS)
How Do Free Radicals Affect the Skin?
Not all free radicals are created equal, and some affect the skin more than others.
The most damaging of these three free radicals is the Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). We are exposed to ROS from the air we breathe (oxygen), cigarette smoke, UV sunlight, stress, and smog. ROS causes oxidative stress by attacking all areas of cells, mutating DNA, and destroying the skin’s moisture barrier. It also damages the dermis layer of the skin, causes inflammation, and gives the skin wrinkles, brown spots, and a rough texture.
Topically applying skincare products that are formulated with antioxidants (along with eating fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants) can dramatically lessen this oxidative damage.
Reactive Carbonyl Species (RCS) is a carbon-based radical resulting from alcohol consumption and eating simple carbohydrates such as sugar, white flour, white rice, and pasta. These cause what is known as glycation, where a sugar-like coating forms over the skin’s proteins. This makes them hard and inflexible, resulting in loss of tone (sagging) as wells as deep wrinkles and fine lines.
Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS) is a nitrogen-based radical found mainly in the environment. Common sources are parks, woods, farmlands, and gardens. RNS is given off by nitrogen-rich soil, like fertilizers, car exhaust, and the “exhalations” made by trees. These are change proteins in the skin, increasing inflammation and triggering cell death.
While this all sounds so dramatic, it’s simply the truth of what occurs within the skin. But, no worries. I do have some good news so keep on reading!
The Apple Experiment
A great visual example of oxidation can be found in apples. I tried this really cool experiment in my Austin home to show the benefits of antioxidants in lessening oxidation of the skin.
What I Used:
- A gala apple (the kind I eat almost every night of the year. After all, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, right?)
- Vitamin C&E Treatment (a potent skincare product that uses tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl methylsilanol pectinate, both stable forms of vitamin C)
What I Did:
I simply cut out a piece of an apple and applied a thin coat (about the same amount you would apply to your face) to half of the slice and waited for over an hour.
As you can see (and I promise you, there was no fancy photo filtering done to the apple!), there is a significant difference between the untreated side of the apple and the treated side of the apple. This shows how topical vitamin C can provide protection for the skin and may interfere with the natural oxidative processes that cause melanin to form. It demonstrates how vitamin C can slow down the visible appearance of skin damage that occurs from both inside and out.
It’s important to note that you could get the same result from applying lemon juice to an apple. However, you would absolutely never, ever want to apply pure lemon juice to the skin, as that would cause severe dryness and irritation. Plus, pure lemon juice doesn’t have the delivery system and stability of a well-formulated skincare serum, so it would not give any preventative aging benefit anyways.
In conclusion, antioxidants have more scientific applications in skincare than most ingredient groups available. From barrier to improved elasticity to prolonged cell longevity and increased cell energy, antioxidants are truly one of the most beneficial skincare ingredients you can use. This is why I use so many of them in the products I formulate.
How Can I Prevent Free Radical Damage and Oxidative Stress in My Skin?
One of the very best ways to prevent skin oxidation by mitigating damaging free radical activity is to apply skincare products that contain stable, non-oxidized antioxidants such as Vitamin C&E Treatment to the face every morning. If you’re not using something with antioxidants under your daily sunscreen, it’s definitely time to start aging smartly and give your skin some serious protection.
Applying a vitamin C serum topically can essentially keep your skin from turning brown (by preventing and fading brown spots due to its melanin-suppressing properties), as well as increase collagen, make your skin look brighter, fresher and more even-toned and give a more youthful glow.
Want to find the best vitamin C formula for your skin? Here are five things to look for to ensure you’re getting the best results for your skin—especially if your skin is sensitive or you use exfoliating acids or retinol.
And when it comes to looking at skincare ingredients, here’s what product labels won’t tell you.
One Final Thought
While antioxidants such as vitamins C and E are incredible for your skin, it’s important to know that just these two antioxidants alone can’t control the many forms of free radicals to which our skin is exposed. The best strategy is to use a diverse mix of antioxidants that complement each other’s actions and neutralize as many free radical families as possible. An antioxidant product I suggest for nighttime use is Firm + Repair Overnight Serum because of all the powerful superfruits and superfoods it contains that help to manage oxidative stress from within.
Along with an antioxidant serum, you should definitely be using a well-formulated product containing retinol. Many people think retinol is a type of exfoliant, but did you know it’s technically an antioxidant? Read my beginner’s guide to using retinol or prescription retinoids.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”