What Is Oxidative Stress & What Does It Do To Skin? Our Deep Dive

Contributing writer By Kirsten Nunez, M.S.
Contributing writer
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.
Medical review by Keira Barr, M.D.
Board-certified dermatologist
Keira Barr is a dual board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Resilient Health Institute.
Woman Looking Stressed

Image by Nikita Sursin / Stocksy

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. The first step? Fighting oxidative stress, one of the major causes of cellular damage and premature aging.

What is oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress starts with molecules called free radicals. They’re created as normal byproducts of cell metabolism or by exposure to sources like X-rays, air pollution, cigarette smoking, and pesticides. Free radicals also 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 radicals. If disease-causing microorganisms invade your body, the phagocytes can kill them by unleashing free radicals. 

The issue is when there are too many. Excess free radicals can damage cellular structures, including DNA and cell membranes. And if your body's production of free radicals surpasses its ability to control them, the result is oxidative stress.

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How does oxidative stress affect the skin?

A prolonged state of oxidative stress promotes the skin aging process. Specifically, it contributes to the loss of collagen and elastic fibers, resulting in fine wrinkles. Oxidative stress is also involved in reduced barrier function, decreased moisture, and increased skin cancer risk due to DNA mutations.

Essentially, your skin—and the rest of your body—is not a fan of constant oxidative stress.

How do you fight oxidative stress?

At this point, you're probably thinking: How do I stop this? 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 manage oxidative stress—and ultimately, cellular beauty

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1. Add adaptogens to your diet.

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Adaptogens are herbs that help your body adapt to stressors like oxidative stress. They "are antioxidant powerhouses," says explains Jessie Cheung, M.D., board-certified dermatologist. "[Adaptogens] help scavenge free radicals, increase cellular resistance to stress, and improve resistance to toxic chemicals." 

As Kyle Hilsabeck, PharmD, CWCP, notes, "Adaptogens function like buffers to help your body adjust more quickly." For the bull in the china shop, eating adaptogens is like installing more secure shelving and placing security guards out front, he says. Herbs like ashwagandha and Rhodiola rosea are known to have exceptionally powerful antioxidant properties as well. When taken as a supplement, Rhodiola rosea, in particular, is an extensively studied adaptogen that neutralizes oxidative stress in the body.*

2. Eat foods high in antioxidants.  

Antioxidants are molecules that stabilize free radicals by donating an electron. Or, they might make free radicals harmless by breaking them down. Furthermore, antioxidants don't turn into free radicals after giving away an electron. 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 radical damage," 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. Plants have antioxidants 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. You can also take supplements like astaxanthin and vitamin C.

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3. Limit inflammation-triggering foods.

On that note, certain foods contribute to oxidative stress by triggering inflammation. That's because oxidative stress and inflammation are interdependent, resulting in a vicious cycle. Free radicals "activate pro-inflammatory genes, which unleash a cascade of progressive inflammation," Cheung. "[This causes] immune cells to recruit other immune cells to the damaged sites, creating more oxidative stress and cellular injury." 

To suppress this cycle, limit inflammatory foods like sugar, red and processed meats, and refined carbohydrates such as white bread and white rice. Cutting back on processed snacks and fast food will also help.

4. Apply antioxidants topically.

Since cutaneous oxidative stress contributes to inflammatory skin conditions, it's also best to use antioxidants topically. "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 CoQ-10, 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 CoQ-10 can bring back youthfulness to the skin," notes Green. But remember, using topical antioxidants doesn't replace eating fruits and veggies. The goal is to boost your body's overall defenses by consuming and applying antioxidants.

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5. Wear sunscreen regularly. 

If you're a skin care fanatic, you probably saw this coming. External aging, after all, is primarily fueled by UV radiation—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 triggers cell damage and causes 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." 

6. Try to reduce your stress levels.

Psychological stress doesn't just harm your heart and mind. It also causes cellular damage by promoting oxidative stress in the skin. If this persists, it can overpower the skin's antioxidant defenses, leading to conditions like premature aging.

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."

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7. 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 stress, 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. 

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