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Oxidation, free radicals and antioxidants, explained

Oxidation is good (most of the time)

We are not plants, so we can’t make “food out of air” like in photosynthesis, by which plants make carbohydrates out of carbon dioxide and water using light’s energy. No, we humans (and all other animals) need to eat carbohydrates and other stuff made by the plants and oxidize them using respiration. This is the way we get ATP and reducing power to live on and make exactly what we need to grow and reproduce and keep making more humans.

If oxidation is good, why do we need anti-oxidants?

Once we make our beautiful proteins and nucleic acids, and our skin, etc. we don’t want them oxidized and broken down just like that. Yes, we will oxidize and degrade our macromolecules when it’s the right time, but pollution and UV light don’t care about how much we love our chromosomes and proteins and will destroy them. That’s what ROS* (reactive oxygen species) in the environment do: they have excess energy, unpaired electrons, etc. and their powerful force will modify our DNA and make it mutate. ROS* will also oxidize the lipids in our cell membranes that make life possible. Yes, ROS* will wreak havoc if we let them.

Figure: ROS* are hard on the cell, and they are everywhere.

Antioxidants: the scavengers of ROS* 

During millions of years, the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere continued to increase because of plant photosynthesis. As oxygen increased, new antioxidant systems evolved to prevent the formation of ROS*. These systems include small antioxidant molecules like ascorbic acid, glutathione, and tocopherols. There are also enzymes that regenerate the oxidized antioxidants and disarm ROS*: superoxide dismutase (SOD), peroxidases, and catalases are just as essential.

An oxidized antioxidant is no longer an antioxidant; the system requires regeneration of the antioxidants. For example, oxidized ascorbic acid acts as a pro-oxidant, all living organisms have systems that re-reduce oxidized antioxidants so that life can continue.

Plants also need antioxidants

Plants also respire and even during photosynthesis ROS* are produced, they need to be tamed and disarmed. Plants depend on intact DNA and intact cell membranes just like us.

Natural antioxidant systems are essential for both plants and animals. Plants have many phenolic compounds (in addition to tocopherols), which can act as antioxidants: flavonoids, tannins, and lignin precursors may work as ROS*‐scavenging compounds. Antioxidants act as a cooperative network, employing a series of oxidation-reduction reactions. There are interactions between ascorbic acid and glutathione in plants and between ascorbic acid and phenolic compounds.

Plant-sourced antioxidants 

We humans depend on plants for antioxidant power, which we consume as food or apply topically. Plants have antioxidants because they need them for some of the same things as humans do; they have an electron transport chain just like us for respiration, and photosynthesis has its particular electron transport chain; this means ROS* everywhere! We at Skin Actives use many plant-made antioxidant chemicals, including polyphenols and terpenes. Subcategories include flavonoids  (i.e., EGCG, apigenin, quercetin), stilbenes like resveratrol, carotenoids (astaxanthin, lycopene, and beta carotene), and many more. 

Astaxanthin gives our sea kelp coral its color. Astaxanthin is similar to some pigments that give coral exoskeletons their color. The similarity between astaxanthin and corals is not just in color but also in chemistry. Corals obtain the majority of their energy and nutrients from unicellular photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae. In this mutually convenient living arrangement, the algae live a protected life within the coral and produce pigments that protect the coral from the sun. Because of its particular molecular structure, astaxanthin serves as a potent antioxidant. It has a beneficial quenching effect against singlet oxygen, a powerful scavenging ability for lipid and free radicals, and effectively breaks peroxide chain reactions. Carotenoids are effective at low oxygen concentrations, complementing vitamin E activity, which is effective at higher oxygen concentrations. Astaxanthin also enhances and modulates the human immune system. Astaxanthin and other antioxidants decrease the acute inflammation reaction in the skin that follows excessive UV radiation exposure, acting as a sunscreen. After all, a definition of sunscreen is a chemical that delays skin burning by UV.

A magical fruit?

What’s this years’ magical fruit, the one that will make your skin younger forever? It doesn’t matter, a new one comes every year. Plants have a usual array of antioxidants, once evolution found a successful antioxidant, it kept it. Melons, Terminalia chebula, amla, cranberry, are made to look like the “best antioxidant ever” by manipulating the concentrations and method of measurement.  Another example of misuse of scientific tools to fool people.

Skin problems caused by ROS* 

There are too many to enumerate, but they include wrinkles, sunspots (also called liver spots and age spots), vitiligo (loss of skin color in blotches), gray hair, and more. Any type of cell is susceptible to damage to its DNA by ROS*, leading to changes in the proteins. These proteins may be enzymes or structural enzymes. ROS* damage to the system of cell membranes will affect cell function in general.

 How much oxygen do we want? 

We want to preserve a status in which endogenous ROS* are allowed to fulfill their job as defenders against infection and as intracellular second messengers, without overwhelming the natural antioxidant systems and leading us into oxidative stress. The last thing we want is to flood our anti-oxidant resources with topical hydrogen peroxide or benzoyl peroxide.

In short, peroxides are an out-of-date tool whose time has passed decades ago. Why do skincare companies continue to use them? Because people like fast results. Visible, quick results, sell products, even when they may be brutal and harmful for your skin. Go figure!

What’s so special about Skin Actives? The protein scavengers of ROS* 

Most skincare products include antioxidants, usually vitamin E or ascorbic acid, or others chosen among the many botanical antioxidants. At Skin Actives, we use the best antioxidants you see in other brands. The difference is that we also offer purified, high specific* activity, high purity proteins that will help with the recycling of the skin’s natural antioxidant system. Skin Actives special antioxidant proteins include superoxide dismutase, catalase, thioredoxin, glutaredoxin, and methionine sulfoxide reductase A and B.

Why antioxidant proteins? Isn’t astaxanthin good enough?  It is good, but not good enough to maintain the sophisticated antioxidant cellular system.

Enzymes are proteins that can accelerate the rate of specific chemical reactions that would otherwise go too slowly to be compatible with life. In the laboratory, you can accelerate chemical reactions by changing the temperature or acidity of the medium. However, life has strict constraints, which in humans means about 98 degrees Fahrenheit and pH around 7.0. Skin Actives Scientific offers a comprehensive list of enzymatic antioxidants that complement our body’s antioxidant system.

*High specific activity proteins: Proteins can lose activity. It is possible to have a protein that is totally inactivated (like when you boil an egg), and an inactivated enzyme is worthless.

*High purity. You can add a ton of protein but if only a small fraction of that protein is the enzyme you want, you are wasting your time. This is what happens when you use “melon SOD”, which is melon juice with almost undetectable SOD activity.

The most remarkable antioxidant ingredient used in skincare is unique to Skin Actives: the ROS* BioNet

The ROS* BioNet supplements the antioxidant skin system and decreases oxidative stress caused by UV radiation, pollution, endogenous ROS*, etc. The key ingredients in our ROS* BioNet are purified thioredoxin, glutaredoxin, and superoxide dismutase. This synergistic combination of proteins will help the skin prevent damage from oxidative stress and prevent long-lasting consequences: wrinkles, sunspots, elastosis, and more.

Which antioxidants for your skin?

For our skin, let’s use any antioxidants that work, be it plant antioxidants or proteins that are bioidentical to our “clever” antioxidant enzymes. What Skin Actives Scientific offers you is the most comprehensive collection of antioxidants to make up for skin that may be losing some of its intrinsic antioxidants in an environment that has more ROS* than our skin can cope with.

Some Skin Actives products that contain ROS* BioNet

ROS* BioNet (previously ROS* Terminator): A concentrate of ROS* BioNet antioxidant proteins working with glutathione; you can add to a cream or serum to combat oxidative stress or use “as is.” Ingredients: ROS BioNet plus glutathione, in a synergistic “soup” of antioxidant algal extracts, including our sea kelp ferment, Porphyridium polysaccharides, fucoxanthin, and astaxanthin.

Antioxidant Serum: ROS* terminator in a serum with a stable vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, plus many botanical, water-soluble antioxidants. Ingredients: Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (vitamin C), tetrahydro curcuminoids, ferulic acid, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG from green tea), hesperidin methyl chalcone, lycopene, hyaluronan, niacinamide, aloe vera, Sorghum bicolor extract, carnitine, and carnosine.

Moisturizing Antioxidant Day Cream: Using cream as a carrier, we can obtain a complete antioxidant mix, including hydrophilic and lipophilic ingredients, plus our very best botanical antioxidants. The key actives are ROS* Terminator (see above), soy isoflavones, alpha-lipoic acid [R(+)], ubiquinone (coenzyme Q10), resveratrol, pterostilbene, tocotrienols, alpha-D-tocopherol (vitamin E), astaxanthin, lycopene, lutein, beta carotene, Centella Asiatica extract, some great plant polysaccharides, oils, amino acids, and more. I know, it’s a very complex formulation, but it’s what our skin needs.

Add antioxidants to your DIY formulation 

Search the keyword antioxidant on our website for actives that will enrich your DIY product, making it better than anything you can find in a department store—starting with ascorbic acid and derivatives (our favorite: magnesium ascorbyl phosphate), antioxidant booster, R-alpha lipoic acid, ferulic acid, vitamin E oil, kakadu plum,  amla extract (in Indian food stores), and so much more. Don’t forget the ROS* BioNet!


Claims on this page have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.