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 play a key role in providing additional antioxidants.
Because of ongoing concerns like climate change and the urban environment many of us live in, supplemental antioxidants are increasingly important.
Reports show strong antioxidant properties in fruits and teas. These include (but are not limited to): citrus fruits, berries (raspberries, blueberries, blackberries), cherries, olives, tomatoes, kale, cocoa, apples, spinach, certain nuts, red cabbage, beans, artichokes, onions, and green and black tea. For more, read this, and this.
What about Tea?
Tea has been found to have more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Tea has a type of antioxidant called catechins, that is part of a group of antioxidant polyphenols called flavonoids. There are six main catechins found in tea. The most important, of these is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).
Green and Black teas have about 8-10x the polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables. EGCG has been linked to inhibiting cancer cells. Green tea consumption has been associated with improved cognitive function, reduction in inflammation, heart disease prevention. Did we mentione that it also delays the breakdown of collagen? (ie, prevents wrinkles & loss of elasticity).
Our conclusion: drink your tea, people!
Finally - does my Antioxidant Rich Skincare do a D*mn Thing?
Yes. Well, ahem, probably.
In brief - Vitamins A, C, E, Reservatrol, and Green Tea Polypheols are among a host of good ingredients that in theory topically fight Free Radicals.
But as opposed to consuming these whole ingredients, you really need to be sure the beauty blend is right (antioxidants seem to work better in concert with each other), that the antioxidants are stable (if not they can oxidize before they are applied, which renders them useless in fighting free radicals), and that the formulation can be properly absorbed in the skin.