A little while ago now, The Geeks interviewed Professor Tom Kirkwood from the Institute of Ageing and Health at Newcastle about the truth behind ageing. He talked about the damage and repair our bodies go through every day and the impact this has in terms of ageing. One of the big theories on ageing is the ‘Free Radical Theory of Ageing’, and we’re here to shed some light on what this actually means, and how the advent of antioxidant-containing products has bloomed in its wake!

Many of us have heard the beauty buzzword ‘antioxidant’ – if you’re a big Beauty by the Geeks fan you’ll no doubt have heard us talk about antioxidants and skin ageing. We’re here to get down to the knitty gritty and demystify these science-sold ingredients! To explain what antioxidants do, we need to take a quick look at free radicals and how they relate to ageing.

So what exactly are free radicals?
Normal atoms and molecules have a balanced number of electrons. Electrons are one of the components of atoms – they’re tiny, negatively charged particles! They normally exist in pairs and in a balanced way so that the molecule or atom is stable and isn’t highly reactive. You may also come across the term ‘reactive oxygen species’ (often abbreviated to ROS). These ROS are very much like free radicals, and so we’ll refer to them all under the umbrella of ‘free radicals’ for now!
Free radicals have free, unpaired electrons and go around looking for electrons to take from other molecules – and this means they can cause damage!

By stealing electrons from other molecules, like the proteins and DNA in our beloved skin cells, these pesky molecules cause cellular stress and damage, and the gradual accumulation of this damage is thought to contribute to ageing. Damage of structural proteins like collagen in the skin by free radicals is thought to contribute to the loss of skin’s strength and firmness with ageing, while oxidative stress in hair follicles is thought to underpin getting grey hair!

So where do free radicals come from?
Long story short – free radicals are everywhere. Free radicals are actually generated by the body’s normal processes, but external factors like pollution and exposure to UV rays from the sun result in more free radicals being produced. Because the skin acts as the barrier between the body and the outside world, it is far more exposed to these damaging factors than other organs.

The generation and activity of these radicals creates ‘oxidative stress’ in the skin, which is when the levels of free radicals overwhelm the body’s natural defences against these agents. These defences are called antioxidants.

Defending against free radicals
As free radicals are everywhere, we have natural defences against a lot of the damage that they do. These are the antioxidants that so many of us find ourselves talking about these days! The body has a lot of enzymes that act as efficient antioxidants, including scientifically named catalases and superoxide dismutases. These work by giving the free radicals exactly what they want – those all-important electrons! This means that they’re not taking electrons from places we don’t want them to. We get other natural antioxidants from our diet, including molecules like vitamin C.

So how do free radicals and antioxidants fit into the Beauty World?
So we’ve learned that the ‘Free Radical Theory of Ageing’ is that gradual accumulation of damage from these free radicals leads to ageing, as we can only repair the damage to a certain extent. We have enzymes and antioxidants to help soak up some of the damage, which leaves more of our cell undamaged and therefore slows down the ageing effect of free radicals.

The clever Beauty Boffin idea is to try and help slow the ageing process by avoiding unnecessary exposure to free radicals and to try and top up our levels of antioxidants. This means staying off the sunbeds and staying away from cigarettes (smoking exposes us to a whole load of free radicals!).

Lots of anti-ageing treatments have foundations in the idea of supplementing the antioxidant defences in our skin. Many anti-ageing products contain antioxdiants like vitamin C, vitamin E, resveratrol, caffeine and many many (many!) more! Just check out some of our ‘Science Behind The Bottle’ articles to see for yourself!

But does using antioxidants in cosmetics actually work?
In a world where we’re all living a little longer, but don’t want to show it, the anti-ageing industry is positively booming! And with this boom has come a lot of scientific research into ingredients for lotions and potions designed to turn back the hands of time.

You’ll be happy to know that this antioxidant anti-ageing does have some science behind it! A number of studies, measuring scientific factors like the damage in the skin itself, as well as the visible appearance of the skin, have demonstrated that the use of topical antioxidants can help fend off skin ageing, particularly from excess UV exposure (an accelerated form of ageing known as ‘photoageing’). Unfortunately, these don’t stop the clock entirely, and skin ageing is inevitable – topical antioxidants or not!

It’s also worth noting that many commonly used and tested antioxidants like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, caffeine, niacinmaide and more (the list really does go on!) have other activities in the skin, and so don’t work solely by blocking free radicals, so it can be difficult to separate out skin benefits that specifically from antioxidant activity. But we’re not ones to complain about buy-one-get-many-free beauty benefits!

We hope that’s shed a little light on the antioxidant anti-ageing scene! If you have any burning questions, we’d love for you to get in touch by commenting below or tweeting us @BeautyByGeeks! Until next time, happy Geeking!

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Images (thank you!): www.changemyface.com,  http://www.prioriskincare.com/free-radicals-agents-of-aging/, http://www.healthy-anti-aging-for-life.com/free-radicals.html