Shield Your Skin from Harm

Antioxidants Protect Your Skin
Skin needs all the help it can get - from the outside as well as the inside

hen a snake outgrows his skin, he sheds it. Off comes the old, dull, worn-out husk, to reveal a glistening new layer of skin (a scaly one, to be sure) in mint condition, as bright and shiny as the one he was born with. Whatever damage the snake's environment had been doing to his skin, the environment would have to start all over again on the new skin.

Wow - if only we could do that. It would be worth going into seclusion for a day or so to get the job done, wouldn't it? Of course, some people spend a lot more time than that trying to undo the accumulated damage of a lifetime of wear and tear on their skin. Whether it's dermabrasion, chemical peeling, laser resurfacing, or just a facelift, there's nothing wrong with availing yourself of whatever medical science can provide, and you can afford. We all want to look and feel as good as we can.

Antioxidants Fight Free Radicals

One very affordable - and effective - way of helping skin look good is to keep it healthy with antioxidants, as we will see in this article. Actually, considering all the environmental assaults on our poor, beleaguered skin, it's amazing we don't all look like the creature from the black lagoon. Between solar ultraviolet radiation (the chief villain in skin aging and skin cancer), environmental pollutants, chemical toxins, and biological pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, our skin is a kind of war zone where the good guys can never rest, lest the bad guys breach the defensive barrier that nature has endowed us with and take control of our bodies.

In the never-ending battle taking place inside our skin cells, the black hats are worn mainly by highly reactive (and therefore damaging) molecules called free radicals, and the white hats belong mainly to the antioxidant molecules that neutralize them. Immense numbers of free radicals are generated in all cells by the process of energy metabolism (the "burning" of glucose to produce the chemical energy required for life), but in skin cells, free radicals are also produced by the sun.

The Sun Is a Major Source of Free Radicals

Every time you go out in the sun, the solar ultraviolet radiation (you can't see it, but it's always there, even in cold weather) starts a chain of photochemical reactions in your skin, leading to the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are a nasty type of free radicals. (Not that the sun is all bad, of course - it causes your skin to synthesize vitamin D, which is vital for your body's ability to absorb calcium from food.)

Rushing to neutralize the ROS and keep your skin from disintegrating are two of the best antioxidant friends you have: vitamin C and vitamin E. Because they are vitamins, your body can't make them on its own, so you must get them from food or supplements. Although we usually think of supplements as being ingested, like food, some can be applied directly to the skin as a cream or lotion. (Smearing food on the skin doesn't work nearly as well, but try telling that to the next baby you see.)

Thickening the Skin Is Good

In a past article in Life Enhancement, we saw how it's possible, with certain skin lotions, to help achieve a smoother, fresher, younger-looking skin ("Rejuvenate Your Skin with Alpha-Hydroxy Acids," August 2002). The chemical action of alpha-hydroxy acids thins the skin's outermost layer of dead cells, the stratum corneum, while at the same time greatly thickening the underlying basal cell layer of fresh, living cells (together, the stratum corneum and the basal cell layer constitute the epidermis). There is also some thickening of the dermis, which lies beneath the epidermis.

Thickening the skin in this manner (which is accompanied by the increased synthesis of certain beneficial compounds in the dermis) is desirable because it counteracts the thinning that is part of the aging process. In that sense, one can say that alpha-hydroxy acids have a rejuvenating effect on the skin. And that's great, of course - but what about trying to slow down the skin's aging process in the first place?

Antioxidants Retard the Aging Process

Retarding the aging process is where antioxidants come in, because aging of the skin (and of the rest of the body, for that matter) is thought to result in large part from the damaging effects of free radicals.1 Unless free radicals are stopped in their tracks by antioxidants, they will quickly attack and degrade some of the most vital molecules in our cells: nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), proteins, and lipids (fats and other fatty compounds).

DNA damage is particularly harmful because it can cause genetic mutations and cancer. The three main types of skin cancer are basal-cell carcinoma, squamous-cell carcinoma, and the dread malignant melanoma, one of the most aggressive, fast-developing cancers known. Almost all cases are linked to sun exposure, so it really pays to protect yourself in this regard - not just with sunscreen but also with topical antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E.

Skin Needs Antioxidants on the Outside

But how much antioxidant is enough? Is that even the right question? When you're fed up with something, you say, "Enough is enough!" But where vital nutrients are concerned, enough is not enough, because what we really want is the optimal amount, not just enough to get by on. There can be a big difference between those two. For most of our cells, most of the time, we can probably get an optimal amount of antioxidants from a good, healthy diet supplemented by a good multivitamin/multimineral/multiantioxidant formulation. (These amounts greatly exceed the government's recommended daily intakes in most cases, because those values are set rather low - they're designed not to provide optimal health but merely to prevent deficiency diseases.)

Even when we get an optimal amount of antioxidants internally, however, the question remains: what about our skin, the only organ (not counting our eyes) exposed to the powerful, and mostly harmful, influence of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays? If we're out a lot, exposed to the sun, our skin may need more help than it's getting from the inside, so it's prudent to give it some extra help from the outside, with an antioxidant-enriched skin-care lotion designed to inhibit photoaging, the aging of skin caused by sunlight.2

In fact, Dr. Lester Packer, the renowned antioxidant researcher who directs the Packer Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, says (without undue modesty),3

The Packer Lab is the world's leading research center on antioxidants and skin. From our research, we have learned that it is as important to replenish antioxidants on the outside as it is on the inside.

Vitamin A Is Not an Antioxidant - Or Is It?

If you're knowledgeable about the benefits of certain vitamins for skin health, you may be wondering why we haven't said anything about vitamin A. Vitamin A, after all, is well known as a vital skin nutrient with proven benefits, particularly in the prevention of skin cancer (and other cancers as well). Furthermore, vitamin A is known to be beneficial in treating skin disorders such as acne, dry skin, eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis. In addition, this vitamin is crucial for good vision and for maintaining a healthy immune system, and it helps fight infections, including those caused by wounds or burns on the skin.

All that being true, it hardly matters whether vitamin A has antioxidant activity or not - although it would be nice if it did. And there is reason to think that it might, despite a lack of evidence for this in actual human beings. In laboratory experiments, scientists have found strong antioxidant activity in vitamin A - or, more precisely, in certain precursor compounds, called carotenoids, that are ordinarily taken in place of vitamin A itself.

The fact that this antioxidant activity has not been observed in humans, however, demonstrates the folly of assuming, without hard evidence, that what works in a cell culture in the lab will work in the infinitely more complex environment of the human body. But as we said, it hardly matters in this case, because we already know that vitamin A, whether antioxidant or not, is very good for your skin.

The Sun Depletes Skin Antioxidants

It should probably go without saying that external antioxidant protection must be in place before exposure to the sun, whose action in generating reactive oxygen species in the skin occurs rapidly. Taking antioxidant supplements (in either capsule or lotion form) after exposure will do little good, except to replenish the supplies that were used up in neutralizing the ROS produced during the exposure.

The importance of having abundant antioxidants in the skin before exposure to the sun is underscored by the observation that solar UV radiation rapidly depletes the levels of antioxidants - particularly vitamin E - in the skin.4 And the levels of vitamin E in healthy, untreated human skin show a strong gradient in the stratum corneum to begin with, with the lowest levels occurring at the surface and the highest levels in the deepest layer. A similar effect is seen with vitamin C, where the levels at the deepest layer are 10 times higher than at the surface - but still anywhere from 10 to 100 times lower than in the basal cell layer below the stratum corneum.

Vitamin C Is a Powerful Antioxidant

Vitamin C is well known for its role in strengthening our immune system, and it is a powerful antioxidant whose many other health benefits include a significant reduction in the risk for cancer and heart disease. By scavenging free radicals that could cause mutations in our DNA, as well as helping to prevent other molecular mayhem in our cells, vitamin C offers outstanding protection against the oxidative stress that is believed to be a major factor in the aging process. It is particularly valuable in our skin - where it is the most abundant antioxidant - because of the often extreme oxidative stress caused by solar UV radiation.

Furthermore, one of vitamin C's most important functions in the skin (and throughout the entire body) is to regenerate the molecules of vitamin E after that vitamin has neutralized free radicals. Vitamin E can thus by recycled to act as an antioxidant over and over again, making its use by the body far more efficient than it would be otherwise, and making our daily requirement for it much less than it would be otherwise.

Vitamin E Is a Powerful Antioxidant Too

Like vitamin C, vitamin E is extremely important for its antioxidant properties throughout the body: it protects against atherosclerosis (and thus heart attack and stroke) and some forms of cancer, such as prostate cancer and breast cancer, and it relieves the symptoms of arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. In the skin, vitamin E provides powerful protection against UV radiation and ozone. (Ozone is an upper-atmospheric gas that shields the earth from the full intensity of the sun's UV radiation but that, paradoxically, is highly destructive as a ground-level air pollutant).

Thus, the role of vitamin C in regenerating vitamin E is tremendously valuable - and it is but one example of such cooperative behavior among certain of the body's antioxidants. Extensive research by Dr. Packer and his colleagues at Berkeley has shown that the "Big Five" antioxidant molecules - lipoic acid, glutathione, coenzyme Q10, vitamin C, and vitamin E - form a unique antioxidant network in this regard: they form a kind of "mutual regeneration society" that helps maintain the antioxidant activity of each of them. *

*For a discussion of the antioxidant network and its great importance for human health, see "Lipoic Acid Helps Heart Health" in Life Enhancement, September 2001.

Vitamin C Stimulates Collagen Synthesis

Beyond its roles as an antioxidant and as a vitamin E regenerator, vitamin C also helps keep skin healthy and youthful in another important way: it stimulates the production of collagen, the predominant structural protein in the body and the principal component of the dermis. (The vitamin's role in this process, by the way, is not that of a catalyst or cofactor but that of an actual reactant, so it is consumed in the process and must therefore be replenished.)

Together with the protein elastin, collagen helps maintain a firm, supple skin tone - while we're young. As we age, however, these structural proteins slowly break down, resulting in the gradual weakening and thinning of the skin (as well as of many other bodily structures). The result - particularly if the skin has been damaged by too much exposure to the sun - is the wrinkles and sags of old age.

Thus, vitamin C's ability to stimulate collagen synthesis is a major plus. It accounts for the results of a laboratory study at Duke University showing that skin cells grow faster and become thicker in the presence of enhanced amounts of vitamin C.5 Remarkably, the effects observed were the same whether the cells were taken from newborn infants or people in their eighties.

Take Good Care of Your Skin

Whether you're just a baby (a precocious one with good taste in reading) or someone who has seen a thousand moons come and go, it's your skin that holds you together and makes that vital first impression on others. Take good care of it, and it will serve you well. How ironic that your most important task in this regard is to protect your skin from the ravages of the ultimate giver of all life on earth: the sun.


  1. Stadtman ER. Protein oxidation and aging. Science 1992;257:1220-4.
  2. Flynn TC, Coleman WP. Topical revitalization of body skin. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol 2000;14:280-4.
  3. Packer L, Colman C. The Antioxidant Miracle. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1999, pp 12-13.
  4. Thiele JJ, Schroeter C, Hsieh SN, Podda M, Packer L. The antioxidant network of the stratum corneum. In Thiele J, Elsner P (eds), Oxidants and Antioxidants in Cutaneous Biology, Karger, Basel. Curr Probl Dermatol 2001;29:26-42.
  5. Pinnell SR, Murad S, Darr D. Induction of collagen synthesis by ascorbic acid. Arch Dermatol 1987;123:1684-6.

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