Could Free Radicals Be Good For The Skin?

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
We’d be hard-pressed to think of a skin-care brand that doesn’t tout the power of antioxidants in at least one of its products. And, with good reason: Over the last decade or so, as scientists have uncovered increasing evidence that the reactive, uncharged molecules known as free radicals damage cellular DNA, leading to mutations that could cause premature skin aging and other issues. Antioxidants — everything from green-tea extract to vitamin C — have been shown to fight these effects.
Free radicals (also known as “reactive oxygen species,” or ROS) come from sources like pollution and cigarette smoke, and they alter normal bonds with your skin cells. Think of it like the oxidation of a sliced apple: It starts to brown after it’s been exposed to the air for a little while, but it’ll stay its original color much longer if treated with lemon juice, which is full of antioxidant vitamin C.
The whole “you need to fight free radicals to keep your skin healthy” mantra has been beaten into our beauty-loving brains, so imagine our surprise when biologists at the University of California, San Diego, recently discovered that these supposedly evil free radicals we’ve been trying to create a forcefield against could actually be good for skin, in certain situations.
What? So confused!
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Okay, so the authors of the study, which appears in the journal Developmental Cell, found that free radicals produced within roundworms' bodies' own mitochondria could be necessary for skin healing. In fact, increased levels of them could make skin heal faster.
Wait — hold up. Roundworms?
Yes, this experiment was performed on nematodes (you don’t see that phrase in a beauty article every day, now do ya?), but the researchers say they suspect the findings would likely also apply to mammals — a.k.a. us. “We suspect that these genetic pathways are conserved, so that they would apply to vertebrates and mammals as well,” study author Andrew Chisholm, a professor of biology at UC San Diego, said in a press release.
“We discovered in our experiments that when we knocked out the genes that produced [free radicals] in the mitochondria and eliminated antioxidants, the roundworms had trouble closing up their wounds,” said Chisholm. “We also found that a little more ROS helped the wounds close faster than normal.”
That doesn’t mean you should go frolicking through secondhand smoke and soaking up all the UV rays, though. While this study indicates that internal free radicals could help skin, all signs still point to external free radicals harming it.
"It appears you need some optimal level of [free radical] signaling,” Chisholm explained. "Too much is bad for you, but too little is also bad.”
For more on why you still need antioxidants in your life — and how to get them — click here. It’s pretty, um, radical.

Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page!

More from Skin Care

R29 Original Series