Antioxidants: The Protectors

Reviewed by Scott R. Miller, MD, FACS; and Linda Nelson

Antioxidants help protect your body from damage caused by unstable molecules, also known as free radicals.

The human body makes its own "security system" of natural antioxidants that fight against free-radical damage; however, genetics, age, sex, and lifestyle factors can undermine this security system. You can boost your body's defenses with an antioxidant plan and ensure that you look and feel your best.

Free Radicals

Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that target and ultimately damage your tissues, protein bonds, and cells. They are often caused by environmental factors such as UV rays, smoke, chemical and biological pollution, alcohol, and stress. Rigorous exercise, and an inadequate warm up or cool down, can also cause the release of free radicals into your system. Free radicals multiply excessively until they are stopped by antioxidants.

The escalation of free radicals can inhibit the rebuilding process of cells, which can interfere with muscular growth, weaken your immune system, and create a greater risk of injury. The consequences also include damage to your skin's DNA, an aged appearance, wrinkles, sagging skin, a dull or rough complexion, and an increased risk of skin cancer.

The role of antioxidants, including the use of supplements, is only partially understood and still being studied. Antioxidants can prohibit the free radical chain reaction before cell damage occurs. But in today's environment, your body alone may not be able to overcome free radical damage, and many people's diets do not contain adequate antioxidant levels.

Creams and Serums

In the past, people who wanted to reap the benefits of antioxidants applied vitamin E directly to their faces. Though, problems occurred with people who had sensitive skin conditions. Furthermore, the serum in vitamin E capsules is so thick that the skin has a hard time absorbing it.

Today, there is a wide variety of lightweight antioxidant creams and serums that can penetrate under the skin's surface. In recent years, manufacturers have found that vitamins containing antioxidants (specifically vitamins C and E) are more easily absorbed when combined with other ingredients.

The goal of these creams and serums is to diffuse free radicals and strengthen the fibroblasts, which are bridges that support skin. Strengthening fibroblasts defends you from sagging, dull, rough-textured, and aging skin. Dermatologists also found that such vitamins may stimulate collagen production which is naturally depleted during the aging process. Collagen supports the healthy configuration of your skin.

The Importance of Diet

In addition to creams and serums, diet plays a role in controlling antioxidant levels. In addition to vitamins C and E, antioxidants can be found in magnesium, copper, and zinc.

The following vitamins and foods are rich in antioxidants:

  • Vitamin E: Whole grains, wheat germ, some cereals, apricots, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fish oils.
  • Vitamin C: Citrus fruits and juices, cantaloupe, strawberries, kiwi, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, and green peppers.

Finding the Right Antioxidant Plan

Individual factors influence what constitutes the optimal antioxidant plan. Your age, sex, genetics, hormones, and overall health are taken into consideration. You will have options choosing the best diet and creams or serums for your antioxidant regimen. Your treatment plan will have to be modified to adapt to your changing needs as you age. Discuss your expectations and skin-treatment goals with a qualified doctor to understand the options and to create the best treatment plan for you.

About the Reviewers of This Article

Scott R. Miller, MD, FACS, is a member of the editorial advisory board for Consumer Guide to Plastic Surgery. A board-certified plastic surgeon, Dr. Miller practices in La Jolla, California. [More about Dr. Miller.]

Linda Nelson is the director of education for ZO SKIN HEALTH, by Zein Obagi, MD. She is based in Irvine, Calif.