Esthetician Hannah Hatcher once compared free radical damage on our skin cells to a “bull in a china shop.” With such a colorful description of the chaos brought onto our skin by these pesky little particles, we had to know more.

These reactive particles are believed to come from unstable nitrogen and oxygen molecules and are blamed for everything from cellular aging to actual DNA damage. So it’s important to our health and beauty that we learn how to take necessary precautions against them.

Below, four dermatologists share everything you need to know about free radicals.

What is a free radical?
“Unstable atoms with unpaired electrons are called free radicals,” begins NYC-based dermatologist Hadley King. As she explains, electrons prefer to be in pairs, so these unstable atoms essentially bombard the body in search of other electrons to bond with. “This causes damage to cells, protein, and DNA, and this damage can lead to inflammation, aging, and even cancer.” Gary Goldfaden, dermatologist and founder of Goldfaden MD, adds, “Microscopic particles, or free radicals, go deep into the skin and cause damage to otherwise healthy cells. The result of this is [the] loss of elasticity, causing wrinkles, sagging, hyperpigmentation, or dark spots.”

The process by which unstable, free radicals seek out electrons to bond with causes a form of cellular strain that is called oxidative stress. Our skin cells and bodies are able to neutralize some sources of free radical damage, but we are regularly exposed to more sources of oxidative stress than we can naturally fend off. This accumulates to result in cellular aging, inflammation, and even DNA damage.

Where do they come from?
“The top sources of exposure to free radical damage are smoking, air pollution, alcohol, exposure to toxic chemicals, sunlight, and fried foods,” notes dermatologist Morgan Rabach, co-founder of LM Medical. While these are the main sources of free radical damage to our skin, there are almost countless sources of free radicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis — hence why it is so important to supplement our skin care regimens and diets with ingredients that can combat them.

How do we protect our skin from them?
King, Goldfaden, and Robach all agree that antioxidants are the most important class of ingredient to reverse, or neutralize, free radical damage. In fact, our skin cells possess natural antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, which can mitigate some of the stress this causes to our cells. But our skin cells’ limited supply is overwhelmed by our environments, diets, and lifestyles, which is why it’s necessary to incorporate additional antioxidants in our diets and skin care regimens.

What are the best ingredients to seek?
The most common antioxidant we hear of in skin care is vitamin C, which should always be followed up with an SPF. However, there are other sources of antioxidants to seek as well as ingredients that function synergistically with vitamin C, ranging from vitamin E to Ferulic acid. Even cannabidiol, or CBD, is known to be a potent source of antioxidant protection, as is Rooibos tea, Japonica flower, Reservatrol, and Kakadu plum, to name a few.

xx, The FabFitFun Team

Now that you know how to combat free radicals, here are some tips to find the right vitamin C product for you.