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

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.

What You Can Do

“If a cell is damaged by free radicals, it wants to repair itself and will if it’s stimulated,” says Chapas. Kick-start the process by working antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals, into your skin-care routine and diet. The best antioxidant-rich ingredients in skin-care treatments include idebenone; coenzyme Q10; kinetin; botanicals such as green tea, soy, and coffeeberry; and vitamins C and E. Vitamin E especially has been shown to penetrate deep into the skin, where damage happens. Apply an antioxidant-rich face lotion with SPF in the morning (try Neutrogena Ageless Restoratives Anti-Oxidant Moisture SPF 20, $20 at drugstores), consider using a spray with free radical–fighting properties in the afternoon (try Kinerase Hydrating Anti-Oxidant Mist, $35 at kinerase.com), and wear a cream containing one of the above ingredients at night (try Prevage Anti-Aging Night Cream, $132 at elizabetharden.com). And you can reduce free radicals in your body by consuming a few servings of vibrantly colored foods and drinks each day. Taking a multivitamin is a smart way to boost antioxidants internally, too.

 

Try These Free Radical-Fighting Foods

These nine foods and one drink contain high concentrations of antioxidants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  1. Apples, unpeeled
  2. Pomegranates
  3. Dark chocolate
  4. Dried plums
  5. Red wine
  6. Artichokes
  7. Pecans
  8. Blueberries
  9. Strawberries
  10. Spinach