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Chemistry LibreTexts

4.10: Free Radicals and Health

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Realize how free radicals can affect your health.
    • Name some health conditions and diseases that can result from excessive free radical exposure.
    • Provide examples of foods and beverages that contain antioxidants.
    • Recognize chemicals in skin care products that can slow the effects of aging

    Free radicals can be generated from a variety of processes. For example, combustion of any material will produce OH. (not hydroxide), NO. free radicals. Once inhaled, OH can enter the body and affect cells. Watch the video below to see how free radicals affect biological systems.

    How do antioxidants keep you healthy? Our body is under constant attack from oxidative stress. By wrong lifestyle choices, we make billions of free radicals in our body leading to oxidative stress. This can also increase when we are physically and/or emotionally stressed. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants (too many free radicals and too few antioxidants). It is a condition that results when our body does not have enough antioxidants to counter free radicals in our body.

    Free Radicals and Disease

    Sources of free radicals: need this pic

    Free radical exposure has been linked to cancer and a number of autoimmune diseases. One way of fighting free radicals is to consume or apply antioxidants. By providing sources of electrons, antioxidants can detour free radicals from attacking healthy cells in the body. The word wall below displays a variety of foods that are rich in antioxidants. Foods and beverages that are rich in vitamins A, C, and E provide sources of electrons for free radicals. Minerals like selenium are also antioxidants. For a more comprehensive list of foods are labeled as being antioxidants, click here.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Word wall art displaying antioxidants. Image is taken from

    Free Radicals and Aging

    Some studies have linked biological free radical production to aging. In a cell's mitochondria, reactive oxygen species are naturally made. These substances damage fats, proteins, and mitochondria DNA. During this process, more free radicals are produced in the cell. Two of these destructive free radicals are superoxide (\(\ce{O2-^{}}\)) and nitrogen monoxide (\(\ce{NO}\)). These radicals have been linked to cancer, skin aging, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic diseases.

    By eating more fruits and vegetables, many nutritionists believe the free radical effect can be reduced in regards to chronic disease. As for aging, many scientists believe that not just one theory can explain why aging occurs. For care of skin, dermatologists recommend that you reduce UV exposure. Ionizing radiation is a source of free radicals that can be minimized. Once the skin has been exposed to UV radiation, there is very little that can be done to counteract its effects.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Skin comparison of a younger to an older person. Images are taken from: and Elizabeth R. Gordon

    Dermatologists and nutritionists recommend a diet rich in antioxidants (vitamins C, E, selenium, and coenzyme Q) to protect skin from damaging free radicals. Lotions, moisturizers, and sunscreens can contain these ingredients as well.

    Skin Care products

    Watch the following video to understand how to care for your skin

    1. What are the purposes of the Epidermis and dermis in your skin?
    2. What do GAGS do:
    3. How can UVB help the body?
    4. What do the letters ROS represent?
    5. How do free radicals affect DNA, proteins, Fats, and the Dermis?
    6. What types of chemicals help repair damaged skin?
    7. When should the chemicals in question #6 not be used?
    8. How does Salicylic acid make skin appear more youthful?
    9. What is the purpose of applying hyaluronic (it is a humectant) acid to skin?
    10. Why are peptide products useless?
    11. According to this video, what is the best anti-aging product you can purchase?

    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\) Retinol

    Manufacturers of anti-aging lotions or creams might use the scientific chemical names for the antioxidant ingredients. When purchasing these products, remember to translate them accordingly. Consumers often spend excessive amounts of money on anti-aging creams and lotions. The best way to reduce advanced aging is to protect your skin from ultraviolet exposure. In addition, selecting a skin-care product that contains a combination of some of the antioxidants below is helpful. Lastly, there is no need to pay a large amount of money for an anti-aging product.

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Antioxidants and their effect on skin
    Antioxidant Effect on skin
    Vitamin E ( also known as Alpha-lipoic acid, 3-5%) protects skin from sun damage
    Vitamin A (also known as Retinoic acid, 0.01-0.1%) treats fine wrinkles, age spots, and rough skin
    Flavonoids (extracts from green tea or chocolate) reverses sun damage
    Vitamin B6 treats fine wrinkles and protects skin from sun damage
    Lycopene (a carotene that is present in tomatoes, watermelon, asparagus, and grapefruit) protects skin from sun damage