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

Once upon a time, skincare 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.

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 the 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.

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.

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

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 by 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.

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,” explains Jessie Cheung, M.D., board-certified dermatologist. “[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.

Since cutaneous oxidative stress contributes to inflammatory skin conditions, it’s also best to use antioxidants topically. “Skincare 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.

If you’re a skincare fanatic, you probably saw this coming. External aging, after all, is primarily fueled by UV radiation—and the oxidative stress that comes with it. Kyle Hilsabeck, PharmD, CWCP, Vice President of Pharmaceutical Affairs at McCord Holdings, 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.” 

Adaptogens are herbs that help your body adapt to stressors like oxidative stress. They “are antioxidant powerhouses,” says Cheung. “[Adaptogens] help scavenge free radicals, increase cellular resistance to stress, and improve resistance to toxic chemicals.” 

As Hilsabeck 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.*

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 backburner. “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.”

There’s a reason why 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 shuteye, cellular beauty will take a hit. 

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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