Oxidative Stress: What Does It Mean For Your Skin & How Can You Fight It?

If you've done your homework on the causes of premature aging and other skin disorders, you've probably heard of oxidative stress. This phenomenon might sound too complex to be related to what's happening on the skin's surface, but it plays a critical role in determining the health of many parts of your body, including your skin. In fact, if you peel back the layers of most lifestyle tips for healthy skin, you'll see that they're closely linked to oxidative stress.

Case in point: sun exposure. You've probably been told that direct sun exposure spells trouble for your skin and you should apply SPF whenever you go out, but do you know why? It's because research shows that UV radiation bands can cause delayed oxidative stress through the generation of reactive oxygen species, causing damage to skin cells and resulting in all sorts of skin diseases. The same goes for smoking and alcohol abuse. They can wreak havoc on the skin, causing premature aging and acne breakouts through the oxidative process. If you want your skin to stay healthy and youthful, you must figure out a way to keep oxidative stress in check. 

What is oxidative stress?

The National Cancer Institute describes oxidative stress as "a condition that may occur when there are too many unstable molecules called free radicals in the body and not enough antioxidants to get rid of them." ‌In other words, oxidative stress occurs when an upsurge in free radicals outpaces the antioxidant defense system. This phenomenon can cause chronic inflammation, which leads to the breakdown of collagen and altered functions in skin cells, resulting in a variety of skin diseases including cancer.   

Free radicals are unstable atoms with an uneven number of electrons, according to Medical News Today. They're the opposite of stable atoms, which are complete with an even number of electrons. Because electrons must be in pairs to be stable, unpaired electrons can lead to highly unstable atoms. The uneven number of electrons causes unstable atoms to steal an electron from another atom to get more electrons to make up the number of electrons in their outer shell, which, in turn, oxidizes this atom and turns it into a free radical. It then takes a different molecule's electron, which continues in a cycle and causes endless damage to your skin. This process, if continued, can cause an imbalance between the free radical (unstable atoms) and antioxidants (stable atoms) and, eventually, the much-dreaded oxidative stress. 

Causes of oxidative stress

Oxidative stress is responsible for many things that go wrong with our skin. Speaking to Vichy Laboratories, dermatologist Nina Roos explains, "Polluted air particles and UVA rays are responsible for an upsurge in skin cell oxidation, increasing free radicals. In response, the skin undergoes a process known as oxidative stress, which affects skin cells' DNA — and, thus, their inability to function. As a result of these freed molecules, skin can subsequently go on to suffer inflammation..." Roos says this leads to visible symptoms such as redness and increased skin sensitivity. The development of aging lines, sun spots, loss of elasticity, and acne are among the most apparent signs of oxidative stress.

Aside from environmental aggressors, certain medications can also cause oxidative stress in the body. These include Paracetamol, Doxorubicin, AZT, Diclofenac, and Cisplatin, per a study published in the Journal of Toxicology. Lifestyle habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and a diet containing high amounts of fat and/or sugar, highly processed foods or prolonged exercises can increase the risk of oxidative stress.

Not only do excess free radicals take a toll on the skin during the oxidative stress process, but they also wreak havoc on the brain cells, contributing to increased risks of brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease. Oxidative stress can also cause asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome (Myalgic encephalomyelitis).

What is an antioxidant?

If oxidative stress is a war on our skin, antioxidants are the knights in shining armor. Since oxidative stress is caused by a severe shortage of antioxidants in the body, it's important to keep our antioxidant levels high to keep this damaging phenomenon at bay.

Antioxidants play an indispensable role in protecting our bodies from the production of free radicals. Since the problem with free radicals is their unpaired electrons, antioxidants address the issue by lending free radicals their own electrons to make the sets even and stabilize the free radicals (via Harvard Health Publishing). This helps to break up the gruesome chain reaction of oxidative stress and fend off further damage to the body cells. 

Our bodies are always under the attack of free radicals and oxidative stress through both our biological processes and external factors. When our bodies are exposed to external aggressors such as UV rays, air pollution, and tobacco smoke, our bodies produce free radicals and go into an oxidative burst in a metabolic response. Free radicals have an incredibly short lifespan, but the damage they cause is larger than life. Therefore, we constantly need an antioxidant boost to offset this destructive process. While our bodies naturally produce antioxidants such as melatonin, alpha lipoic acid, and glutathione, we can and should replenish them through topical treatments and diets.

Skincare ingredients to fend off oxidative stress

You can apply antioxidant-rich ingredients directly to your skin to stave off unwanted inflammatory reactions, diminish aging lines, and boost the synthesis of collagen and elastin. Per a study published in the journal Nutrients, antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E and selenium are effective in defending the skin from sun-induced oxidative stress.

Antioxidants sound like a single class of skin-friendly substances but are not all created equal. There are two types of antioxidants, including direct molecules and indirect molecules. For example, vitamin C and polyphenols are both direct antioxidants, but vitamin C also doubles as an indirect antioxidant. Examples of indirect antioxidants include melatonin, resveratrol, glutathione, and curcumin. Direct antioxidants couple directly with a free radical, but indirect antioxidants, instead of bonding to a free radical, strengthen the body's built-in antioxidant enzymes. Direct antioxidants are short-lived, but indirect antioxidants might last for an extended period of time. Direct antioxidants become free radicals after neutralizing a free radical and damaging genetic material afterward, but that's not the case with indirect antioxidants. Therefore, indirect antioxidants are slightly more beneficial than their direct counterparts.

Antioxidants are better used in your nighttime skincare routine. Slathering up with antioxidants at night helps guarantee your skin has what it needs the next morning to fend off oxidative stress brought on by UV radiation and pollution. Before going out, don't forget to slather on that sunscreen to protect your skin from sun damage. 

Lifestyle changes to prevent oxidative stress

You can get a steady supply of beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E — the three major types of antioxidants — in various foods, drinks, and supplements. For instance, Healthline notes that beans, red cabbage, spinach, and beets are exceptional sources of antioxidants. Fruit-wise, strawberries, blueberries, and goji berries are also powerful free-radical scavengers. When you cook, use more herbs and spices with buzzing antioxidant activity, such as rosemary, sage, oregano, and garlic. Dark chocolate is also a decent source of antioxidants.

Another way to counteract oxidative stress is by practicing healthy lifestyle habits. According to research published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, obesity, too, can cause oxidative stress, so regular exercise and consuming a healthy diet may be able to help ward off this stress. However, excessive physical activity can also result in oxidative stress, so it's advisable to limit your exercise when you're feeling under the weather and moderate exercise for most of the week. Additionally, you should abstain from smoking and excessive alcohol use because they can also cause cell damage. Stay inside if you can during periods of intense sunshine or high pollution levels. If you must go outside, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen and seek out shade to reduce UV-induced free radical damage to your skin.