Celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Kourtney Kardashian are crowing about their detox strategies. From herbal steams to uber-restrictive diets, there are hundreds if not thousands of techniques that promise to rid your body of contaminants so you can reclaim your youth, lose weight, achieve glowing skin, and exude the kind of vitality you usually only see in toothpaste commercials.
While there’s little scientific evidence to back up most of these tabloid-esque claims, one thing remains true: environmental pollution can cause cellular damage to your skin and an overabundance of the resulting toxins can make you feel icky and look less than your best. Is there an effective fix? The answer seems to like in antioxidants, which bind to and then stabilize those pesky free radicals, preventing them from causing any further destruction. But first, a closer look at the toxins that may be to blame for your less-than-dewy complexion.
Learning the Truth About Free Radicals
Free radicals are molecules that are missing an electron, a biological whoopsie daisy that causes instability and inspires the molecule to search out a replacement for its missing part. The free radical basically goes on raids, stealing from nearby molecules – like skin cells – achieve a more even keel. Left unchecked, free radicals will plunder to their tiny heart’s content, leaving havoc and cellular casualties in their wake, but antioxidants put a stop to the carnage by donating an electron and neutralizing free radicals. The chain reaction is stopped in its tracks and everybody returns to status quo.
Cells that aren’t so lucky begin to oxidize, breaking down and losing their ability to function as expected. Skin cells begin to dehydrate, droop, and wrinkle. In an effort to respond to these abnormal processes, your body activates its inflammatory protocol which attacks not just the problem areas but also healthy tissue. As elastin and collagen degrade, your skin shows even more visible signs of the free radical invasion.
Think of it like an onslaught of irritants. When smoke gets in your eyes, they turn red. The same principle is at work within the many layers of your skin. Free radicals are microscopic irritants that anger your tissues, riling up the troops and making blood vessels swell to accommodate your body’s response. Even repairs are potentially damaging when they turn from acute to chronic; when your cells are constantly in fix-it mode, they don’t have time to rest or cope with typical day-to-day activities. They’re racing to clean up the free radical mess instead of working on otherwise habitual things like collagen production. Balance is interrupted and a cycle of destruction commences, all because we can’t escape diesel fumes while we sit in traffic or race for the city bus.
Where do Free Radicals Come From?
A study published in Trends in Molecular Medicine found that people exposed to more free radicals may have a biological age that exceeds their chronological age. Basically, their bodies are aging faster than time would indicate. Researchers found links between that accelerated aging and different DNA-level modifications likely caused by toxins and outside stressors including:
- UB rays/sun exposure
- Fried food
- Acute or chronic illness
- Lack of sleep
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Air pollutants/smog
Pollution and smog are hot topics these days as people the planet over struggle with worsening air quality. While there are a lot of different problems related to the rise in pollution, cosmetic companies know that traffic in urban areas is infusing our skin with chemicals that are known to cause age spots and wrinkles. Studies conducted in Germany and China showed a marked correlation between increased pollution and age spots, and those effects are only exacerbated once you add in additional factors such as poor nutrition and smoking. While air pollution used to be something discussed as problem falling mostly on the shoulders of congested areas such as India and China, metropolises in Western Europe such as Paris in London are now experiencing their own increase in pore-clogging particles.
It may be relatively easy to avoid absorbing free radicals from tobacco and alcohol – just stop smoking and drinking to excess, right? – but you can’t steer completely clear of poor quality air and sometimes stress and illness happen whether we like it or not. The key seems to be in preventing exposure to free radicals whenever possible (using sunscreen and relying on all-natural pest deterrents, for example) and combating the toxins we do take in using a combination of a healthy diet and topical treatments packed with antioxidants.
Arming Yourself with Topical Protection
Until we somehow manage to extinguish free radicals in their entirety (a pipe dream, of course) we need to figure out ways to protect our skin from those thieving little molecules. Skincare products rich in antioxidants can help ward off damage and, in some cases, even repair existing issues so you can once again enjoy radiant, plump, beautifully contoured skin and look every bit as good as you feel.
Vitamin E’s popularity predates modern times by about a century. Way back in the 1930s and 1940s, scientists were using vitamin E to stimulate infant growth rates and reverse atherosclerosis. These days, we know there are many other potential benefits including as a scar treatment, anti-an inflammatory, and a way to topically increase circulation to the skin and scalp. Vitamin E is also at its best when used in tandem with vitamin C (see below), so look for products that combine the two or be strategic about what combination of products you use during your daily skincare routine. You can use vitamin E straight from the capsule by pricking the outer coating and applying it directly to your skin or you can boost your dietary intake by consuming foods rich in vitamin E such as sesame oil, nuts and nut oils, wheat germ, sweet potatoes, and butter.
Vitamin C, otherwise known as ascorbic acid, is a readily available nutrient used in the production of collagen and as a way to potentially prevent and treat skin damage caused by UV rays. Though vitamin C is naturally found in your skin, production begins to trail off as you age and free radicals further deplete your innate supply. Many manufacturers are now incorporating vitamin C into their scrubs, face masks, and night creams, with hopes that it helps users ward off photodamage, soothe dry skin, heal wounds, and minimize wrinkling. You can also eat your share of vitamin C (and avoid that age-old disease called scurvy) by plating up some citrus fruit, cantaloupe, watermelon, berries, pineapple, kiwi, and papaya.
Plant-based ferulic acid is used to stabilize vitamins E and C but it’s also an antioxidant all on its own. In fact, a 2002 study showed that ferulic acid was able to zero in on and repair free radical damage without affecting healthy cells. Manufacturers source ferulic acid from the cell walls of wheat, oranges, apples, peanuts, and rice as well as coffee and amaranth; consuming any or all of the above will give your body an extra boost, too.
Gentle yet effective, green tea is an antioxidant that almost everyone recognizes in its drinkable form but it’s also gaining visibility as an ingredient in high-quality skincare products, often as an alternative to the relatively more volatile vitamin C. You may see green tea extract listed as “camellia sinensis leaf” on labels, but regardless of what companies choose to call it this ingredient is believed to be effective as anti-aging powerhouse that fights free radicals and calms residual irritation. If drinking green tea isn’t your thing, consider trying matcha, a souped-up version that has a heaping helping of extra nutrients and is used to make everything from lattes to muffins.
Hyaluronic acid is beyond trendy these days and you’ve likely seen it mentioned in magazine articles and spa advertisements, but this is no contemporary, lab-designed ointment or gel. Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring substance that your body produces all on its own to he lubricate joints and retain moisture in your skin. You can increase your body’s amount of hyaluronic acid through a diet high in soy and leafy greens or invest in one of the many aesthetic treatments that infuse your skin with this much-needed nutrient, but there are also tons of topical products that aim to boost moisture through consistent daily or weekly use. Add hyaluronic acid to your skincare routine and you may see brighter skin and fewer fine lines – ideal for those of us struggling with the aging process or skin irritations like rosacea and eczema.
Sea Kelp Extract
Seaweed in general has been lauded as a source of vital nutrients necessary to combat a range of illnesses and issues, but sea kelp is particularly rich in the kind of anti-inflammatory and anti-aging compounds we love to see in our skincare. Typically sourced in the Antarctic Ocean and sometimes listed as “macrocystis pyrifera extract”, sea kelp is known for its ability to withstand temperature fluctuations and other extreme environmental circumstances without succumbing to the elements. Those same properties can help your skin by reversing damage at the cellular level and reinforcing the cell membrane to keep out grasping free radicals. The iodine and other minerals in sea kelp are also prized for their ability to moisturize and soften skin, making this ingredient a force to be reckoned with.
Calendula is more well known as a lovely addition to a backyard garden than it is as a skincare ingredient but that’s all changing. This golden pot marigold, also billed as “calendula officinalis”, has historically been used to treat skin infections and disinfect wounds but these days it’s more commonly seen as part of broader treatments for everything from acne to eczema to hemorrhoids. Why? It’s all down to calendula’s antioxidant-rich makeup. The flower contains a ton of carotenoids and tocopherols (related to vitamin A and E, respectively) that protect and soften skin, slowly erasing signs of aging, brightening your complexion, and stimulating collagen production. You can buy ready-made products featuring calendula extract or oil or buy the essential oil yourself and apply once you’ve mixed it with a neutral carrier oil like coconut or jojoba.
Love a ripe, juicy tomato on your burger? As it turns out, you’re treating yourself to a lot more than just a delicious bite of food. Lycopene, the pigment that gives tomato and watermelon their pretty red color, is an antioxidant full of carotenoids that have been found to reduce redness inflammation caused by sun exposure. Products containing lycopene may help protect against sunburns which in turn are known to increase your risk of skin cancer later in life. Lycopene may also help prevent other types of cancer and disrupt or even destroy free radicals before they attach themselves to your cells.
Rosehip Oil & Sea Buckthorn Oil
Rosehip oil is harvested from rose bush seeds while sea buckthorn oil comes from the berries and seeds of the sea buckthorn plant. The two are often combined, sometimes with the addition of jojoba oil, to provide exponential power in the fight against free radicals. Rosehip oil is high in vitamin C and therefore used to hydrate, lighten dark spots, reduce inflammation, and minimize fine lines and wrinkles. Sea buckthorn oil is also a great source of vitamin C but it also contains everything from vitamin A to omega-3 fatty acids to add in retaining skin elasticity and firmness. Together, these two oils can revitalize your skin, encourage increase vitality, and even reduce the redness associated with scarring.
Carrot Extract (Beta-Carotene)
Much like lycopene, beta-carotene is a plant-derived pigment, this time orange in hue and found in abundance in carrots. Our bodies use beta-carotene as a starting point for synthesizing vitamin A but it’s also an antioxidant that can shut down free radicals. Studies show that people who eat diets rich in beta-carotene (about four or more servings daily) may reduce their risk of cancer, heart disease, and ALS, decrease sun sensitivity, and even slow the progression of macular degeneration. In terms of skincare, carrot extract is showing up in everything from face lotions to night serums, lending its many antioxidant and anti-aging properties to help firm up facial tissues, sooth dry skin, and moisturize until you feel more supple and smooth all around.
Lifestyle Changes to Support Your Skin Detox Program
Even as you’re working to overhaul your skincare collection you can take other steps to support your new-found commitment to a less oxidized future.
For starters, you can become more in tune with the air quality in your city or town. Many urban areas monitor and report on ground level ozone (aka the local air quality) but even if you don’t have ready access to those numbers you can rely on the fact that free radicals are more prevalent on hot days. It’s a great excuse to close the windows and fire up the AC because that light breeze has more in it than just the scent of fresh-cut grass.
You can also recommit yourself to the regular use of sunscreen which forms a barrier between your skin and free radicals so you can prevent the invasion rather than just dealing with the aftermath. The recommended minimum is a sunscreen with SPF 15 but you’re even better off with an SPF 30 (which blocks about 4% more UVB radiation). Don’t just rely on your sunscreen, though; along with applying lotion at regular intervals you should also wear clothing that protects your skin from the sun and air for a multi-pronged approach to daily protection.
Finally, wash your skin each and every day – no ifs, ands, or buts. This may seem simple and even silly to say, but washing is the simplest way to remove excess toxins before they have a chance to penetrate and do harm. A mild cleanser is all you really need to remove oil and dirt in the morning but you may want to consider a heavier duty cleanser at night so you can dissolve pollutants without scrubbing your tender skin. You can certainly invest in one of the trendy motorized face brushes to exfoliate but even something as commonplace as an ordinary washcloth used in a soft circular motion will clear away debris. Too tired at night to hit the bathroom sink? Just remind yourself that much like the remnants of that hot fudge sundae stuck in your back teeth, the longer you leave free radicals in place the harder it’ll be to counteract the effects.
Studies involving the connection between antioxidants and the battle for better skin are ongoing, but there is already evidence enough to support introducing – or, if you’re already using them, ramping up the inclusion of – antioxidant-rich skincare products to your daily regimen. Pamper yourself with luxe creams, enjoy the sensation of extracts and oils massaged into your thirsty skin, and treat yourself to a bubble bath and a nutrient-loaded face mask. Your stress level will thank you (another way to give your skin a break) and you might just beat free radicals at their own game.