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October 07, 2021

The lowdown on free radicals, antioxidants and your skin. A young woman stands on the beach wearing a straw hat and smiling with zinc across her nose

Apart from having quite a cool name, free radicals are a pretty interesting little group of microscopic particles. Most of us know at least a little bit about free radicals, but just what are they exactly and what is their agenda? Are free radicals bad? And where does sunscreen come in?

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are tiny atoms that are constantly moving around the body (and the world) as the result of both external factors and normal physical processes. Each one exists for less than a split second, but can wreak plenty of havoc in that time. They’re a highly unstable and reactive atom — needy, if you will — so they’re always looking for stable electrons to which they can attach themselves. Damage caused by free radicals happens thanks to both natural metabolic processes (turning the food we eat into energy, for example, or exercising) and lifestyle or environmental factors (such as smoking, UV rays, chemical exposure and pollution).

The process whereby free radicals damage healthy cells or tissues is called oxidative stress. This occurs when there is an unfavourable imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants — in other words: when we have too many free radicals and too few antioxidants to neutralise them.

The lowdown on free radicals, antioxidants and your skin. A diagram showing how antioxidants donate electrons to free radicals

 Are free radicals bad? 

They certainly can be. Oxidative stress can lead to the DNA damage responsible for cancer. Free radicals damage not just DNA but all kinds of other cells in the body, and they are believed to speed up the ageing process (causing our skin to wrinkle, for example). Oxidative stress is also thought to be behind inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and respiratory conditions, as well as heart diseases, stroke, neurological disorders and more.

Why are free radicals on this destructive mission? We don’t know, but we do know that free radicals are ever-present in the human body and that they are an unavoidable part of human physiological functioning, meaning we can’t eliminate them completely. Reducing the number of free radicals in our system, however, is a great idea.


The lowdown on free radicals, antioxidants and your skin. An aerial image of traditional matcha tea powder and wooden instruments placed on a wooden table

The role of antioxidants 

If we think of free radicals as stormtroopers that invade the body, then antioxidants are members of the Rebellion! (This is a Star Wars reference, friends. For the uninitated, the stormtroopers are those soliders in white armour that march around the galaxy causing trouble, and the Rebellion are the good guys fending them off).

The lowdown on free radicals, antioxidants and your skin. An image of a Lego storm trooper marching along sand

Antioxidants have the power to stop free radicals from forming or proliferating, and to mitigate the damage they cause. They’re sometimes referred to as “scavangers” because of their ability to go in and clean up free radicals, but this makes them sound less noble than they are. Antioxidants are charitable little guys: they actually donate electrons to free radicals so that the free radicals are pacified and stop rampaging around like wild cowboys.

We naturally produce some antioxidants in the body. Other antioxidants can’t be produced by the body, however, meaning we have to get them through our diets. The main sources of dietary antioxidants are the minerals and vitamins found in plants — in particular vitamin E, vitamin A, beta-carotene, anthocyanidins and epigallacatechin-3-gallate. Antioxidant-rich foods include berries, kidney beans, black beans, artichokes, green and black tea, coffee , prunes, olives, citrus fruits, dark leafy greens, apples, certain herbs and spices, nuts — and plenty more. Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables is a great way to ensure we’re consuming a variety of antioxidants. The more varieties, the merrier!

If we can reduce our free radical exposure and increase our antioxidant intake, peace and balance will be restored in the galaxy of our bodies.

The lowdown on free radicals, antioxidants and your skin. One young woman wearing black bathers and a white shirt applies sunscreen to the face of another young woman wearing a white shirt. The background is grassy.

Free radicals and sunscreen  

We mentioned above that sun exposure can encourage free radical generation. Therefore wearing sunscreen and protecting our skin from the sun wherever possible is an important step in reducing our risk of skin damage and cancer.

However, it’s also true that certain carcinogenic chemicals can play a role in boosting free radical production. This is why you might have heard people mention a link between sunscreen use and cancer, leading to lots of confusion. Allow us to explain.

Chemical sunscreens use chemicals to help deflect harmful UV rays. The catch is that these chemicals can also be absorbed into our bodies through our skin, meaning we have potentially nasty compounds floating through our bloodstream that might encourage free radical production. (As a side note, these same chemicals slide off our skin and into oceans and waterways, threatening marine life).

Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, work in the same way as a beach umbrella or hat: by creating a barrier between your skin and the sun’s rays. Because physical sunscreens use this barrier approach (thanks to mineral ingredients like zinc oxide) they don’t need to use harsh chemicals in order to protect you. And as long as these ingredients are non-nanosized, you won’t be absorbing them through your skin. It’s a win-win: you’re protecting yourself both from the free radicals caused by UV exposure and from the free radicals that might result from chemical absorption. AND the oils and waxes in natural suncreen form a barrier against pollutants, too.

SunButter has always been, and will always be, a natural, mineral, non-nanosized physical sunscreen.

Pretty cool, hey?

The lowdown on free radicals, antioxidants and your skin. A close-up image of some red-purple berries on a wooden surface.

Mitigating the effects of free radicals

There are two ways to keep free radicals in check: by increasing our antioxidants and by reducing free radical numbers. 

As we mentioned above, we can bolster our antioxidant numbers by eating antioxidant-rich foods. We can also boost our body’s antioxidant-generating capacity by applying antioxidants directly onto the skin. When applied topically, antioxidants can help slow the processes that break down proteins in the skin, such as collagen fibres. The result is skin that remains supple, bright and uniform in tone for longer. 

This is where our Boab, Wattle and Kelp face oil comes in! This face oil is high in vitamins C, A and E, which help boost the skin’s natural defences, protect against environmental damage and fight signs of premature aging. 

When it comes to minimising free radicals, it helps to avoid harsh chemicals, pollutants and UV exposure. Interestingly, mental and emotional stress can also contribute to free radical production by triggering stress hormones in our bodies. As such, we also recommend meditating, sunsmart surfing, restful yoga and nature time (or whatever helps you unwind) to help keep those pesky free radicals under control!

It might sound like a lot, but all of these practices have flow-on effects for your general health and wellbeing. Plus, it’s worth it! Research suggests that having the right balance of free radicals and antioxidants helps us live a long and happy life.

The lowdown on free radicals, antioxidants and your skin. An image of SunButter face oil being held above seawater.