How Do Antioxidants Work?

We hear them mentioned all the time in everything from what we should eat to how we should incorporate them in our skincare routine, but what exactly are antioxidants, how do they work and why do we need them? We break it down.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants is a term for the chemical property of compounds that help prevent or reduce cellular damage in the body. They can be both natural and man-made and exist inside (endogenous) and outside (exogenous) the body.

How do antioxidants work?

Antioxidants work to inhibit the process of oxidisation that’s caused by oxygen-containing free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause damage to cells by stealing missing electrons that they need, from other cells. As a result of this scavenging, cells because unstable and damaged. The damage can range from complete destruction of the cell's DNA to a change in the membrane structure which allows pervasive pathogens to enter more easily. Antioxidants work by sacrificing some of their own electrons, effectively neutralising the potential damage the free radicals can cause.

Why do we need antioxidants?

Excess free radicals contribute to chronic diseases that are associated with high oxidative stress such as heart disease and cancer, and so it’s important that we try to reduce our bodies’ exposure to them as much as possible. Although some free radicals are produced in response to environmental stressors like pollution and UV, many are simply a byproduct of normal cell processes such as breathing, digestion and infection control. Even exercise, despite its extensive proven benefits, causes the generation of free radicals. Given how abundant free radicals are and how many are produced by our bodies every day, we need a substantial amount of antioxidants to offer up their electrons and counteract any damage. While our bodies do produce some proprietary antioxidants, including CoQ10 and glutathione, we need a steady supply, which is where diet comes in. Eating a diet that’s full of antioxidant-rich foods is vital to keep the up the balancing act between antioxidants and free radicals.

Understanding ingestible antioxidants

Eating a diet that’s rich in antioxidants helps our bodies maintain optimum health. That said, experts believe that antioxidants tend to work best when eaten in together with other nutrients, plant chemicals and antioxidants, to give them the best chance at effectively fighting disease. To ensure you’re eating enough antioxidants, make sure your diet is full of a wide range of fruit and vegetables including avocado, leafy greens and seeds (vitamin E), blueberries, broccoli, peppers and sweet potato (vitamin C), carrots, oranges, pumpkin and tomatoes (catenoids) and Brazil nuts, barley and brown rice (selenium). If you struggle to get your daily quota, a supplement such as Workshop’s Essential Greens is a good option. As well as being loaded with plenty of antioxidant-rich plants, it also contains digestive enzymes which allow them to be better absorbed and utilised by the body so you retain maximum benefits.

Understanding topical antioxidants

Just as antioxidants that you ingest help prevent damage to your cells, topical antioxidants found in skincare help protect your skin’s structures, enabling proper cellular function and natural renewal and repair process to continue. They also work to reduce inflammation that’s the leading cause of many skin issues such as eczema, protect against UV damage and slow down premature signs of skin ageing. Some antioxidants such as vitamin C also stimulate your skin’s own collagen production, the protein responsible for better structure and bounce within skin cells. To get the best from your antioxidant product, you need to look after it. Although they’re effective at what they do, antioxidant compounds are fragile substances and can easily become unstable or inactive if exposed to light, air and temperature changes.