What are Free Radicals?

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We often hear and see articles discussing products and their 'antioxidant' properties against free radicals.  It's a claim that, although not truly understood, is innately known to be a positive trait.  But what even are free radicals and why are we trying to get rid of them? 

** N.B All of the articles are linked down below so do your research beforehand and always ask a doctor or dermatologist if you have any specific concerns!!

Electrons are negatively charged particles that floats around in atoms.  This unpaired electrons usually arise from oxidative stress or reactive nitrogen species; coining the name 'reactive oxidative stress' (ROS). (4) Free radicals are natural waste products to many metabolic reactions such as respiration by the mitochondria or the immune system in phagocytosis for example. (1) (4) However there are many other causes for free radical production such as, but not limited to, certain medications, alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking, air pollution, temperature changes, sunlight exposure, and trauma. (3) 

Like socks, electrons are stable when in pairs.  Therefore, if there is an unpaired electron in an atom, it is referred to as a 'free radical'.  The electrons will try and hunt down other electrons in the body.  This can be damaging as electrons could try to form pairs with electrons in the DNA, cells, or cell constituents. (2) On the contrary, lower levels of oxidative stress and free radical presentation could prove beneficial for cellular signalling.  The figure below demonstrates the damage that could come about from having more free radicals than antioxidants which act to neutralise electrons and prevent their reactivity. (3)  All in all, the presence of antioxidants helps to counteract free radicals by donating an electron, but if free radicals are in excess, we can have accumulation of ROS damage to critical components of the cell such as lipids and nucleic acids which are proteins that aid in cellular activity.  In some cases, a chain reaction can occur where one free radical of an atom takes an electron from another atom, causing the donor atom to have an unpaired electron.  Thus, damage can spread across a cell very quickly; potentially causing many human diseases such as cancer, tumour growth,  Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's.    

This reaction is also said to be the culprit of 'Free Radical Theory of Ageing' which suggests that, in terms of the skin, when an unpaired electron reacts with the DNA of a skin cell, the ageing process is exacerbated. (8) Thus, it was found to worsen or cause skin diseases such as wrinkling due to decreased collagen production, inflammation,  damaged elastic fibres; reducing elasticity, and discolouration. (6) (7) However, there is debate surrounding this theory.  On a greater scale, studies have even gone as far to say that prevention of the accumulation of free radical damage can increase life expectancy by 5 or plus years.(8) Although many studies suggest that there is a clear causal link between built up ROS damage and ageing, scientists also believe that ROS is not the sole cause and many other factors contribute to the complex and imperfect biological process of ageing. (1) 

As aforementioned, free radicals can have their reactivity counteracted by a donated electron from antioxidants.  Antioxidants include Vitamin A, C, and E, the second line of defence against free radicals, which can be both consumed (green tea, and certain vegetables and fruits) and applied topically in creams and serums to prevent oxidative damage. (4) Other antioxidants include beta-carotene and carotenoids, zinc, and selenium. (5) Lastly, it is vital that you consistently wear SPF to protect your skin from sun damage.  

In essence, although there is no undisputed existing evidence between skin damage/ageing and ROS, there are some precautionary steps that one can take which could aid in prevention.  

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3901353/
2. https://www.livescience.com/54901-free-radicals.html
3. http://oem.bmj.com/content/60/8/612
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/
5. https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/antioxidants-your-immune-system-super-foods-optimal-health
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29186248
7. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/beauty/skin/what-are-free-radicals/
8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/092187349290030S
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