Common Nutrient Lets You Fight Back Against Free Radicals That Destroy Your Skin

Dr. Janet Zand

January 17, 2020

Despite our best efforts, we’re going to experience free radical damage to our cells. Even if you slather your body with sunscreen and eat nothing but organic fruits and vegetables, your skin will still suffer from oxidative stress. That’s because even our cells themselves produce free radicals as they carry out their functions.

Yes, we can and should limit external sources of oxidative stress if we want beautiful skin. But if we want to truly minimize the effects of this type of stress, the best defense is a good offense. And this popular nutrient is a great way to go on the offensive.

The most common way to get this nutrient is in your diet. The reason I’m such an advocate for a healthy diet is twofold: Of course, eating well limits the amount of food you consume that will do damage to your skin. But brightly colored organic fruits and vegetables and other whole foods also supply antioxidants that can fight back against free radicals.

What exactly does this “fighting back” entail? First, it’s important to understand what causes oxidative stress. Free radicals are molecules that contain oxygen (hence the term “oxidative”). But they have an uneven number of electrons. This makes them incredibly unstable. They’ll react with just about anything they bump into. This can cause a whole series of reactions that damage your cells down to your DNA.

As you may know, antioxidants can neutralize free radicals. They’re able to do this because they can give an extra electron to the free radical without becoming unstable themselves. With an even number of electrons, the free radical stabilizes. It no longer runs rampant through your body leaving havoc in its wake.

Once most antioxidants donate their electron, they aren’t much good to the body anymore. They aren’t harmful. But they’re exhausted. And so you have to keep replenishing your body’s supply.

However, there is one type of antioxidant that can keep on working – as long as it has the right partners. And that’s just the beginning of the benefits it offers the skin.

Vitamin E Takes the Spotlight

Vtamins A and C, both topically and through our diets, offer our skin greater health. 

Remarkably, vitamin E is an antioxidant that dissolves in lipids (fatty acids). That means it can easily get into our cell’s membranes, a place that’s particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress. And it can start donating its extra electrons to neutralize free radicals.

Donating an electron leaves vitamin E with an uneven number of electrons. That’s typically what inactivates antioxidants. But vitamin E is different. If it’s in the presence of vitamin C or alpha lipoic acid (ALA) – other skin superstars – these can take one of vitamin E’s extra electrons, getting it back to an even number. And then it can get back to work.

This is another example of why we want to be well-rounded in our approach to nutrition and our skincare products. This is an amazing benefit of vitamin E – but it won’t work if vitamin C or ALA isn’t there to help it. But assuming you are taking this balanced approach to your skincare, let’s talk about some of the other benefits of having vitamin E back on the job.

More Benefits From This Superstar Nutrient

The term “vitamin E” is actually shorthand for a group of eight different molecules. They come in two groups, tocopherols and tocotrienols. In each group, there are four types, alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. The different groups have unique properties, but in general, tocotrienols are the ones you want. They work 40 to 60 times better than tocopherols.

One type of tocotrienol in particular, the gamma form, is particularly good at dealing with sun damage. It helps the skin cells regulate certain gene signals that in turn minimize the damage UVB radiation does.

Typically, when we expose our skin to UVB radiation, our immune system starts to send out inflammatory signals. Too much inflammation can harm the skin.

In a study that used both hairless mice and skin cells from humans, the researchers found that gamma tocotrienol could limit the immune’s system’s production of COX-2, interleukin-1eta, IL-6, and monocyte chemotactic protein-1. What this translates to is less inflammation, less oxidative stress, and ultimately less damage to the skin.

Stops Age Spots From Developing

Another form of vitamin E, delta tocotrienol, helps slow down the skin’s production of melanin. You may be disappointed to hear this if you’re trying to get a tan. But I hope you know by now that a tan is a sure sign of sun damage. And over time, most of us don’t get an even tan from melanin anyway. We get age spots. So having a way to limit this melanin accumulation can really help you avoid those age giveaways.

Vitamin E works by limiting the activity of a key enzyme in the melanin production process. And you don’t need much vitamin E to get the job done. In fact, even at low doses, research has found that vitamin E works as well as or better than a number of common skin-lightening treatments. And it’s safer too!

Vitamin E doesn’t just help prevent those darker brown melanin splotches. It can help keep your skin from turning red due to sunburn. Whether you tan or whether you burn, if your skin is changing colors after you’ve been outside, you’ve damaged it. Vitamin E can help keep your skin its original shade.

Keep the special relationship between vitamin E and vitamin C in mind too. Several studies have found that vitamin E is more effective against UV radiation when you combine it with vitamin C. So if you want to get the best work out of vitamin E, you need to make sure you have plenty of vitamin C to go with it.

Why You Should Use Vitamin E During the Winter

Limiting sun damage is often a key concern during the summer. But vitamin E is great to have around during the winter too. That’s because the vitamin is very helpful in helping the skin function properly as a barrier.

Many people experience dry, chapped, and even cracked skin in the winter. Dry air and extreme temperature shifts can get the best of us. But vitamin E helps moisture penetrate the skin and stay there. This keeps the skin from getting dehydrated so that it can function effectively.

Moisturized skin is more youthful looking skin. And, of course, so is wrinkle-free skin. The antioxidant effects of vitamin E mean that it helps protect collagen from breaking down. It helps keep cell membranes intact so the cells can function properly.

For an extra dose of vitamin E, try avocado. You can even apply avocado topically as a face mask. Mash up half an avocado with 1/4 cup uncooked oatmeal, 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons of honey, and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice. Let it sit on your face for about 20 minutes. Your skin will absorb a lot of the nutrition to give you a moist and healthy glow.

Great for Postmenopausal Skin

Another great source of vitamin E is argan oil. You've probably heard about argan oil. It's become a popular ingredient over the past few years. And for good reason: Argan oil is remarkably hydrating. It contains twice as much vitamin E (a remarkable natural preservative and anti-aging antioxidant) as olive oil.

Research published in the journal Menopause Review found that it can be an effective – and simple – solution for postmenopausal women struggling with skin hydration issues.

For the study, researchers divided 60 postmenopausal women into two groups. They first went through a stabilization period during which they consumed butter (it's a hard job participating in these research studies). Then one group consumed olive oil for 60 days. The other consumed argan oil.

The women in both groups applied argan oil topically to their left forearms as well. Before, during, and after the 60-day period, the researchers evaluated their skin hydration. They did this by measuring transepidermal water loss and water content of the epidermis on their forearms.

They found that both groups saw significant improvement in skin hydration, thanks to the topical application of the argan oil. But the group that consumed argan oil and applied it topically had significantly better results.

Postmenopausal women often have difficulty maintaining the moisture level and barrier function of their facial and body skin. This one-two punch of topical and oral application could be the needed solution. And of course, if you're not yet postmenopausal, argan oil can still benefit you as well if you suffer from dry skin or simply want another moisturizing tool to add to your arsenal.

Include both vitamins C and E in your skincare routine so that you can take advantage of their synergistic effects. You may see vitamin E included in ingredient lists as a tocopherols or tocotrienols. Systeme 41’s Vitamin C Serum contains both vitamins, along with other great ingredients for healthy skin. Don’t worry – these aren’t scary, unhealthy chemicals. They’re actually among our greatest resources to fight back against the oxidative stress the chemicals in our environment can cause.

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