How Do Antioxidants Work?

Everyone always talks about how antioxidants are so great for you, but I'm not very clear on exactly what they are or how they work. Can someone please explain this to me? Thanks!

Doctor Answers 3

With department stores, doctors offices, and pharmacies...

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With department stores, doctors offices, and pharmacies FULL of all kinds of creams, lotions and potions for your skin, it's hard to know what to select. I always tell patients that if you enjoy a product, use it.

BUT, if you want to do something to protect your skin for the long term from skin cancer and wrinkles, you must be on an antioxidant formulation. Ultraviolet radiation (UV light) from the SUN is known to cause skin damage and wrinkles as well as several forms of skin cancer. UV light causes damage by penetrating the skin and create "free radicals" – highly reactive molecules that can destroy cells, damage DNA, create age spots and wrinkles, depress the immune system, and ultimately cause skin cancer.

The answer is, of course, daily broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreen and ANTIOXIDANTS. Antioxidants are important because they significantly reduce the production of damaging free radicals by UV light. These protective antioxidants, such as vitamins A, C or E, can help prevent skin cancer and keep skin firm and young looking. Both oral (pills and food containing healthy A, C, and E vitamins) as well as topical preparations (there are many prescription and commercially available formulations) are effective therapies.

Good luck and wear suncreen!

Dallas Facial Plastic Surgeon


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The medical chemical explanation to the in vivo action of antioxidants is one of stopping free radical damage. In the chemical equations of converting proteins, carbohydrates, fats to tissues in their metabolism the UV light effects, environmental effects, genetic effects can cause disruption of these chemical processes. The antioxidants are stabilizers to these equations allowing their safe completion for cellular survival. Hope that helps. 

Chem 101

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An antioxidant is nothing more than a reducing agent. Brushing up on your high school chemistry: a reducing agent is a rather generous fellow ( or using today's penchant for slang: guy!); he or she ( when we get to the molecular stage there is no difference) is willing to donate an electron. That is: there is an extra electron in its outer shell and the antioxidant is pleased  to give this electron up in the name of stability. 

  On the flip side of the equation is the oxidant. The oxidant is like an angry bumble bee  looking for trouble. The oxidant is pushing for an electron ( to complete its outer shell). He/she will grab the electron anyplace it can find one; be it a cell membrane, DNA, or collagen. This can be very damaging since the molecule which the oxidant grabs the electron from is now missing an electron itself and hungrily looks for an electron to fills its outer shell. This is what is called oxidative stress. This may lead to aging, inflammation and cancer.

   The antioxidant comes in and donates its electron. The situation is now stable.

   We have our own antioxidants plugged into our system. However, certain stressors such as the sun, smoke, chemicals can overwhelm our antioxidant system. That is where supplements help, either in the form of topical creams with antioxidants, if we are trying to protect the skin, or oral supplements if we are trying to protect our organs, in addition to the skin.

   I hope this explains things. We plan to discuss this on our radio show on blogtalkradio July 20th. You are welcome to listen. 

Arnold R. Oppenheim, MD
Virginia Beach Dermatologist

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These answers are for educational purposes and should not be relied upon as a substitute for medical advice you may receive from your physician. If you have a medical emergency, please call 911. These answers do not constitute or initiate a patient/doctor relationship.