The Lowdown on Free Radicals

They sound...ominous. Time to clear up the mystery of what, exactly, free radicals are―and learn how to combat them.

Photo by Anna Williams

First the science lesson: A free radical is an unstable molecule, one whose naturally paired electrons have been split up, explains Anne Chapas, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, in New York City. The remaining unpaired electron is highly reactive, seeking out another electron to pair with and become stable. The problem is, the electron it steals might come from a healthy cell in your body, leaving it damaged. Sources of free radicals include irritants, pollution, smoke, and UVA and UVB rays, as well as normal cell processes, like cell metabolism. “Everyone’s body generates millions of free radicals every minute,” says internist Svetlana Kogan, founder of Doctors at Trump Place, in New York City.


How They Affect You

On the outside, free-radical damage results in lines, sagging, and dull skin. Internally, it creates inflammation, which can lead to heart, lung, and gastrointestinal diseases and some cancers, says Diane Berson, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, in New York City.