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Are Antioxidants Worth the Hype?

By: Ahmed Abdullah, MD
Posted: October 27, 2010, from the November 2010 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

In the never-ending quest for the fountain of youth, antioxidants are the “it” ingredient of the decade. A nutrient that is manufactured by the human body, naturally found within many beans, grains, fruits and vegetables, and even produced synthetically, antioxidants are now added to everything from soft drinks to, of course, skin care products. And sales of antioxidant products are on the rise. In fact, according to Nutrition Business Journal, in 2008, antioxidant supplement sales totaled $4.6 billion, a strong increase of 6% from just two years earlier.

When it comes to skin care, the presence of antioxidants is nearly expected. Those who work in the esthetic industry recommend antioxidant-rich products to clients daily, citing the science that proves their ability to protect skin health and its appearance. But let’s take a step back for a moment. When all known factors are considered, are antioxidants worth it?

The science of antioxidants

First, a bit about the scenario that necessitates antioxidants. Although oxygen is essential to the human body because it enables cells to harness energy from food, it also has the potential to cause harm. When molecules within cells encounter oxygen, a reaction occurs and a free radical is produced. This process is called oxidation, and it can stem from endogenous factors, that is, factors within the body, such as breathing and metabolism, as well as exogenous factors outside the body, most notably excessive sun exposure, pollution, cigarette smoke and more. Another mechanism for forming free radicals is the natural aging process.

Free radicals are unstable atoms or molecules characterized by at least one unpaired electron. Thus, the free radical steals electrons from nearby molecules within the cell, turning them also into a free radical. It’s a chain reaction that causes increasing damage to the cells of the body. As this free radical cascade continues, it can lead to disease. For example, free radicals are a suggested cause of heart disease,1 Parkinson’s disease2 and even cancer.3 They’re also implicated as a leading cause of aging.4, 5 In skin, free radicals lead to the breakdown of collagen and elastin, resulting in the development of fine lines and wrinkles.

Luckily, antioxidants are like soldiers for the cells. They neutralize endogenous and exogenous factors by providing electrons to free radicals, thereby disabling them and preventing cell damage. There are thousands of known antioxidants—such as vitamins A, C and E, and beta carotene—that fall into several antioxidant categories, including carotenoids, flavonoids and polyphenols. Obviously, the goal must be to keep more antioxidants than free radicals in the body. However, as people age, the body produces more free radicals and fewer antioxidants, which aren’t stored in the body, resulting in the need for regular replenishment. Therefore, it’s necessary to augment the body’s production of antioxidants with those from outside sources, including foods and supplements. Antioxidant benefits are just one reason why the Centers for Disease Control has promoted its “Fruits & Veggies—More Matters” campaign.

Antioxidants and the body