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Good, Clean, Real: WTF is an Antioxidant?

Whether you’re figuring out what to eat, thinking about which tea is best to drink, reading about wellness trends, or shopping online for clean beauty, antioxidants seem to be everywhere. But there are so many terms and words (free radicals! catechins! polyphenols! EGCG) that it can be super confusing to understand what the heck they are, how they work -- and whether it’s best to eat them, drink them, or apply them.

Here’s a handy guide to decoding antioxidants.

What's a Free Radical?

We’re starting with Free Radicals, because antioxidants help support and protect the body from these scavenging elements. Free radicals are unstable molecules that seek to add an electron. .

Free radicals are actually natural byproducts of normal processes within the cells (metabolism and the immune system, for example). The body also generates free radicals in response to environmental pollutants such as tobacco smoke, and air pollution. As free radicals build up, the body reached a state of "oxidative stress". This is defined by the National Institute of Health as a state in which “the critical balance between free radical generation and antioxidant defenses is unfavorable”.

Studies have shown that in the human body, there is a gradual but increasingly rapid build-up of free radicals over time, which is linked to oxidative stress, which in turn links to various aspects of aging. In particular, this cycle is associated with diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, and autoimmune disorder. It also leads to various age-related complaints or concerns, such as cataracts, loss of skin elasticity, wrinkles and graying hair.  

Oxidative stress is, in fact, associated with more than 200 diseases.

OK! How do Antioxidants Fight Free Radicals?

Antioxidant, per Harvard Health, is “a general term for any compound that can counteract….free radicals [which] damage DNA, cell membranes, and other parts of cells.”

In short - antioxidants neutralize free radicals through giving up some of their electrons, thereby disabling their harmful properties.

The Best Defense is Offense: Eating your Antioxidants

While your body naturally creates powerful antioxidants, food and beverage also