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Free Radicals Can Damage Your Skin and Make It Age Faster. This Is How You Fight Them

There’s nothing that can age your skin faster than free radicals. These tiny molecules are the first culprits that break down the essential proteins needed to maintain skin structure and cause DNA damage, leading to what you know as “premature skin aging.” The worst part? They’re everywhere. No matter how much you try to avoid free radicals, you will probably still be exposed to them every day.

So this leaves you with only one option: to protect your skin from free radicals all day long. But how do you do that? Keep reading to learn everything about free radicals and how to reduce their impact on your skin.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are highly reactive, unstable molecules with missing electrons that steal electrons from our healthy cells in an attempt to stabilize themselves. This is how free radicals accelerate skin aging, contributing to early wrinkles, a dull look, and dark spots.[1][2]

What causes an increase in free radicals?

The body produces free radicals through processes like strenuous exercise or as a reaction to inflammation. However, the surplus of free radicals that damages the skin is often caused by external aggressors such as:

  • Pollution
  • UV radiation
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Poor nutrition
  • Physical and psychological stress

For the record, among all environmental factors, UV radiation is the most damaging, being responsible for 80% of all free radicals produced.[1]

How do free radicals affect the skin?

Free radicals themselves aren’t really the problem, as the body produces them in response to environmental stressors. Besides, the skin is equipped with a network of protective antioxidants to fight them, which are basically compounds that inhibit oxidation by binding to free radicals and donating their atoms. So the real problem—and what causes skin damage—is oxidative stress, which is a process that happens when there’s an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. 

When your body’s antioxidant defense becomes overwhelmed by the number of free radicals, it triggers oxidative stress. This process is known to damage cells, proteins, and DNA, as well as accelerate skin aging. Consequently, it can lead to the depletion of collagen and elastin fibers, ultimately causing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and an uneven skin tone.[1] Free radicals also attack the lipids responsible for protecting against moisture loss, which results in dryness and a decrease in skin firmness.

Because free radicals are everywhere, you need to constantly supply your skin with antioxidants to disarm them. This takes us to the next question.

How to protect your skin from free radical damage?

To hinder the damage caused by free radicals and protect your skin from oxidative stress, the best you can do is avoid sun exposure as much as possible and apply antioxidants and sunscreen every day.[1] As with everything in skincare, prevention is better than treatment.

However, here comes the tricky part.

Although sunscreens are known to reduce sun damage, some products were actually found to trigger an increase in the level of free radicals beyond what is naturally produced by the body. Specifically, sunscreens that contain oxybenzone were found to increase the number of free radicals when absorbed into the skin.[3] So to stay on the safe side, use sunscreens without oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are both skin- and eco-friendly.

Studies also confirmed that applying antioxidants before sun exposure provides much better photoprotection than when applied after exposure.[4] The whole process happens very quickly, and antioxidants can better defend against free radical damage if they’re already in the skin when the oxidative stress starts to take over the cells.

By the same token, applying vitamins C and E beneath sunscreen has better photoprotection than sunscreen alone.[5][6]

To maintain your skin healthy and offset free radical damage, it’s best to boost your antioxidant system through your diet, skincare routine, and supplements. Vitamins A, C, and E, bioflavonoids, green tea polyphenols, glutathione, resveratrol, and niacinamide are all antioxidants that have important roles in preventing and reducing free radical damage. 

Yes, you can get a good dose of antioxidants by eating fruits and vegetables, drinking a cup of green tea, or a glass of red wine. Yet, you can boost your skin’s defense against free radicals even more by applying antioxidants topically. That’s why a vitamin C serum and green tea skincare products could be the key to unbreakable skin. Moreover, vitamin E enhances the antioxidant protection of vitamin C, so if you use these two together, you hit it big. Add ferulic acid, and you found the holy grail!


  1. Poljšak B, Dahmane R. Free radicals and extrinsic skin agingDermatol Res Pract. 2012;2012:135206. doi:10.1155/2012/135206
  2. Lobo V, Patil A, Phatak A, Chandra N. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human healthPharmacogn Rev. 2010;4(8):118-126. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.70902
  3. Dreher F, Denig N, Gabard B, Schwindt DA, Maibach HI. Effect of topical antioxidants on UV-induced erythema formation when administered after exposure. Dermatology. 1999;198(1):52-5. doi: 10.1159/000018064.
  4. Hanson KM, Gratton E, Bardeen CJ. Sunscreen enhancement of UV-induced reactive oxygen species in the skin. Free Radic Biol Med. 2006 Oct 15;41(8):1205-12. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2006.06.011. Epub 2006 Jul 6.
  5. Darr D, Dunston S, Faust H, Pinnell S. Effectiveness of antioxidants (vitamin C and E) with and without sunscreens as topical photoprotectants. Acta Derm Venereol. 1996 Jul;76(4):264-8. doi: 10.2340/0001555576264268.
  6. Lin JY, Selim MA, Shea CR, Grichnik JM, Omar MM, Monteiro-Riviere NA, Pinnell SR. UV photoprotection by combination topical antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2003 Jun;48(6):866-74. doi: 10.1067/mjd.2003.425. PMID: 12789176.
Who wrote this?
Picture of Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder of Women's Concepts and a certified skincare consultant. She has over five years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and over a decade as an acne sufferer. With a background in dermatological research, Ana brings a wealth of expertise to a diverse range of topics, from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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