Slice open a pear or banana and it will turn brown. Leave meat out and it will do the same. This natural process is called oxidation and it affects all of the cells in your body, including those that make up your skin. Oxidation in the body is continuous and is part of normal cell function but according to Professor of Nutrition Jeffrey Blumberg Ph.D., around 1% – 2% of cells will get damaged during the process and turn into free radicals.
Free radicals are described as ‘free’ because they lack a critical molecule; resulting in them seeking out another cell to attack in order to acquire that molecule. Blumberg explains: “These molecules will rob any molecule to quench that need.” Instead of just killing off their target, free radicals will often damage its DNA, creating what Blumberg calls “the seed for disease”. The victim cell is mutated and may grow and reproduce abnormally and quickly.
A small number of free radicals are not a huge problem, kept in check by the body’s natural antioxidants. But a growing number of toxins that act as ‘free radical generators’ are making it increasingly difficult for the body to keep the process under control. From air pollution and pesticides through to cigarette smoke, alcohol and exposure to sunlight, we are bombarded with a growing number of free radicals that threaten to affect the health and beauty of our skin.
Free radicals don’t just damage their one target molecule, either. Blumberg explains: “When a free radical oxidises a fatty acid, it changes that fatty acid into a free radical, which then damages another fatty acid. It’s a very rapid chain reaction.” These attacks can be overwhelming to your body’s natural free-radical defences and may even lead to chronic disease.
The good news is that nature is full of helpful molecules called antioxidants which work to fight off free radicals and keep our skin looking fresh in two ways: they can prevent chain reactions from happening, or stop them dead in their tracks. Although you can get antioxidants by eating a wide range of fruit, nuts, veggies, beans, lentils and whole grains, the increasing number of toxins we experience coupled with today’s fast-paced lifestyle often demands that we choose supplements to help us get sufficient quantities of these vitamins. So which supplements work best for the skin? Vitamins C and Vitamin E are perhaps the most popular choices:
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Vitamin C, or ‘ascorbic acid’, plays a vital role in stopping the chain reaction before it begins by capturing the free radical and neutralizing it. Unlike most animals, humans can no longer produce the ascorbic acid compound in our bodies and it is therefore essential that we take it in through our diet.
As well as being a powerful antioxidant, ascorbic acid helps to convert procollagen to collagen, which is vital for skin elasticity and impacts its firmness, suppleness and the body’s ability to constantly renew the skin cells. A study by Oregan State University also found that ascorbic acid reacts with the breakdown products of rancid fats to form harmless conjugates, suggesting that it has protective qualities against cancer and DNA damage.
Vitamin E (the collective name for a group of eight tocopherols and tocotrienols) is the chain-breaking antioxidant – it protects cell membranes from the oxidation process by reacting with lipid radicals that are produced during chain reactions. The free radical intermediates are removed and the reaction is stopped from happening. The reaction creates oxidized radicals that can process by ascorbate, so the two antioxidants are effectively a team.
As well as Vitamin C and E, there are many other vitamins and supplements that are thought to be useful in combat free radical damage to the skin, including Coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, polyphenols, Alpha-lipoic Acid, Retinoic Acid and the B group of vitamins. Choosing antioxidant vitamin supplement in combination with maintaining a healthy diet is certainly the best possible way to keep your skin healthy.
Before taking any supplements, it is advisable to speak to your pharmacist or doctor to ensure that they are right for you.