What Is Oxidative Stress & What Does It Do To Skin? Our Deep Dive
Once upon a time, skin care was all about topical products like masks and toners. But as research digs deeper into the link between internal and external health, it's becoming clear that successful skin care is rooted in cellular beauty.*
A major step? Fighting oxidative stress, one of the primary contributors to aging.
What is oxidative stress?
Oxidative stress starts with molecules called free radicals1. They’re created as normal byproducts of cell metabolism or by exposure to external sources like X-rays, air pollution, cigarette smoking, and pesticides. Free radicals have an uneven number of electrons, which poses a problem—because electrons "like" to be in pairs. This means free radicals will steal electrons from healthy molecules to stabilize themselves. Oh, and guess what happens to that molecule? It turns into a free radical, and the chain reaction continues.
Our bodies have natural ways of keeping free radicals in check, though. Plus, free radicals aren't necessarily malicious. In low to moderate amounts, they can lend a hand. For instance, white blood cells called phagocytes make and store free radicals2. If unwelcome invaders come around, the phagocytes can come to our defense by unleashing free radicals.
The issue is when there are too many, which can break down cellular structures, including DNA and cell membranes3. And if your body's production of free radicals surpasses its ability to control them, the result is oxidative stress.
How does oxidative stress affect the skin?
A prolonged state of oxidative stress speeds up the skin aging process4. Specifically, it contributes to the loss of collagen and elastin fibers, resulting in fine wrinkles, sagging, and texture changes. It can also trigger dark spots and other discoloration. But it's not just about these "signs of aging"—oxidative stress affects skin's basic functions: Oxidative stress is also involved in reduced barrier function, increased sensitivity, and decreased moisture.
Essentially, your skin—and the rest of your body—is not a fan of extended oxidative stress.
How do you fight oxidative stress?
At this point, you're probably thinking: How do I stop this? And quick! First, limit your free radical exposure—some is within our control (cigarette smoking) while others are not so much (air pollution). Then the following habits can also help you combat oxidative stress—and ultimately, promote cellular beauty.
Antioxidants are molecules that stabilize free radicals by donating an electron. This is important because antioxidants don't turn into free radicals after giving away an electron. Or, they might make free radicals harmless by breaking them down. That's why it's crucial to consume an antioxidant-rich diet, says Michele Green, M.D., cosmetic dermatologist. "Antioxidants protect the inner and outer skin from free radicals," she explains. "They [also] provide protection from the sun and aid in cellular repair."
Antioxidant-rich foods can be summed up in one word: plants. Lots of 'em. See, plants have antioxidants5 to protect themselves from oxidative stress, a perk you can also enjoy by eating a plant-based diet full of fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, and whole grains. (For what it's worth—your body also produces antioxidants on it's own, too. But consuming additional varieties helps your body function properly.)
We also encourage people to take targeted skin supplements to help get your fill of a robust variety, so you can get a wide spectrum of benefits unique to each. Astaxanthin supports the skin's collagen layer, helps reduce fine lines and age spots, and supports skin hydration.* Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that's actually naturally produced by the body, but declines with age. When supplemented (especially as bioactive ubiquinol form), it increases your natural levels—leading to enhanced cellular energy,6 rejuvenation, and decreased lipid breakdown.* Pomegranate whole fruit extract enhances cellular detox and has the ability to enhance photoprotection7 in the skin, meaning your skin cells are better equipped to deal with UV rays and their subsequent effects.* For example, one randomized controlled trial found that the pomegranate extract increased skin's resilience8 against UVB rays, as well as changes to the skin microbiome.*
Apply antioxidants topically.
Since cutaneous oxidative stress9 contributes to irritated, sensitive, dry and dull skin, it's also best to use antioxidants topically. Why not address it holistically, no? "Skin care products with antioxidants are essential to overall skin health," says Green. She recommends focusing on nutrients like niacinamide, glutathione, and vitamins A, C, and E.
Green also suggests using topical CoQ10, a natural antioxidant in the body. Our built-in reserve supports skin health, elasticity, and texture. However, "as we age, our reserve diminishes. Using products rich in CoQ10 can bring back youthfulness to the skin," notes Green. But remember, using topical antioxidants3 doesn't replace eating fruits and veggies—and topicals only work on the area applied, rather than systemically. The goal is to boost your body's overall defenses by consuming and applying antioxidants.* We also love vitamin C as a topical ingredient, as it supports collagen synthesis, cross-linking, and stabilizes the collagen you already have.
Wear sunscreen regularly.
If you're a skin care fanatic, you probably saw this coming. External aging, after all, is primarily fueled by UV radiation4—and the oxidative stress that comes with it. Hilsabeck compares this effect on your skin to a bull in a china shop. "UV radiation comes in, knocking electrons around and creating negative chain reactions," he says. This depletes your antioxidant stores, adds Cheung, which can result in leathery, wrinkled skin.
So, about that sunscreen. "Sunscreen should be worn every day, rain or shine, as the sun's radiation is always hitting the earth and bombarding your skin," shares Cheung. "Broad-spectrum sunscreens with mineral blockers are the most stable, versus chemical blockers, which will deactivate with continued sun exposure." Check out our favorite mineral sunscreens here.
Try to reduce your stress levels.
Psychological stress doesn't just harm your heart and mind—it also promotes oxidative stress in the skin. If this persists, it can overpower the skin's antioxidant defenses, leading to signs of aging. This is why mental health and mindful practices are an essential part of skin care.
Also, when you're stressed, your body puts skin health on the back burner. "Emotional and mental stress trigger a fight-or-flight response," explains Hilsabeck. And if your body is constantly in this state of stress, it will prioritize survival, he says. "Your skin will suffer during periods of increased stress, [as] having beautiful skin is not a high priority for your body during a fight-or-flight response."
Aim to get better sleep.
There's a reason the term "beauty sleep" exists. According to Green, inadequate sleep prevents the skin from properly repairing itself. It also causes oxidative stress10, she says, leaving the skin looking sallow. Other side effects include wrinkles, pigmentation changes, and other signs of aging.
Moreover, poor sleep is linked to lower blood levels of defensive antioxidants, making it easier for free radicals to do their thing. And, get this: Melatonin—the "sleep hormone"—is also an antioxidant. A full night's rest (and exposure to darkness) is essential for making enough melatonin. Basically, without enough shut-eye, cellular beauty will take a hit.
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.