Breaking It Down: Antioxidants and Free Radicals

So what is an antioxidant?

Let’s break it down: As we know “anti” means opposed to, therefore we know that antioxidants are substances that are opposed to oxidants.

…but what are oxidants?

Oxidants, also called free radicals, are substances that have the ability to oxidize other substances (cause them to lose electrons). They have an unpaired electron in their atomic orbital, but are still able to exist independently. An atomic orbital is capable of holding two electrons, but free radicals only have one unpaired electron, which makes the free radical unstable and highly reactive.

When free radicals contain oxygen, they are called reactive oxygen species (ROS). Under normal conditions, oxygen molecules are stable and nonreactive because they have an even number of electrons. Once again, however, when reactions occur that leave the oxygen molecule with an odd number of electrons, the molecule becomes unstable and highly reactive.

Why are free radicals bad?

Due to the high reactivity of free radicals, they will attempt to either donate that single electron to another molecule or accept an electron from another molecule so that they can become stabilized. This can lead to a chain of events that starts ripping electrons off surrounding molecules. 

The problem arises when the free radicals react with our important cellular components, such as DNA, proteins, carbohydrates, or the cell membrane. When this happens, the cells become dysfunctional or undergo apoptosis (cell death). Collectively, the damage to cells in our body is referred to as oxidative stress. Many environmental factors can lead to oxidative stress, such as pollution, cigarette smoke, UV radiation, chemicals, etc. 

Free radicals and antioxidants

Fortunately, the body has a defense mechanism against free radicals: antioxidants. Antioxidants work through many different mechanisms, with the main objective being to interfere with oxidative processes that produce harmful free radicals and ROS. For example, they may act by scavenging free radicals and breaking the chain of reactions, by binding metal ions, or by removing oxidatively damaged biomolecules. (Karger, 2001) 

In order for the body to defend against free radicals, it must be supported with antioxidants. Some antioxidants are produced by our bodies and others we must obtain from our diet. There are hundreds and hundreds of antioxidants that come from different foods such as fruits and vegetables, but here are some of the more common antioxidants:

  • Alpha tocopherol (vitamin E)

  • Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

  • Beta carotene

  • Lycopene

  • Resveratrol

  • Selenium

Under ideal circumstances, the body can balance the level of antioxidants with the number of free radicals it’s exposed to in order to prevent them from damaging cells. However, this balance can be disrupted by factors like poor nutrition and toxin exposure, which causes the level of antioxidants in the body to be lower than that of free radicals. When this happens, oxidative processes can wreak havoc in the body, manifesting as accelerated aging, damaged or mutated cells, an overloaded immune system, and the activation of harmful genes within DNA. (Dr. Axe)

So how do we prevent free radical damage?

Of course, the first and most important way to prevent free radical damage is to intake enough antioxidants through our diet. If you eat a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, you are probably getting the right amount of antioxidants. However, if you want to up your antioxidant game, check out this top 10 list of foods containing the highest amount of antioxidants.



Black elderberries. (In case you're like me and don't know what an elderberry looks like!)

Black elderberries. (In case you're like me and don't know what an elderberry looks like!)

  1. Rice bran (24,287)

  2. Dark chocolate (20,816)

  3. Black raspberries (19,220)

  4. Semi-sweet chocolate (18,053)

  5. Pecans (17,940)

  6. Ginger root, raw (14,840)

  7. Elderberries (14.697)

  8. Golden raisins (10,450)

  9. Black chia seeds (9,800)

  10. Blueberries (9,621)



I created this top 10 list of foods based on the 2017 data developed by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (

The foods are in descending order based on their ORAC scores with rice bran being the highest 24,287 ORAC score and blueberries coming in at a 9,621 ORAC score.

(psst...if you are like I was and are wondering what ORAC score means I'll fill you in: ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity and it is a lab test that determines the amount of antioxidant activity the food has in the body.)

Blueberries rank as part of the Top 10 Foods Highest in Antioxidants!

Blueberries rank as part of the Top 10 Foods Highest in Antioxidants!

Of note, there are many herbs and spices (such as oregano, cinnamon, and turmeric) that have higher ORAC values than the foods I listed, but I did not add these because I wanted to mainly focus on antioxidants in foods. 

I cannot even begin to describe the excitement I felt when I saw that dark chocolate is one of the foods that contains a high amount of antioxidants! I LOVE DARK CHOCOLATE.

Also, while it does not make the top 10 list, coffee has also been shown to have antioxidant properties! Win for all of us coffee-addicts! No need to worry my tea-lovers: the polyphenols found in green tea can help prevent against depletion of antioxidant enzymes. 


Image from  Superfoodly

Image from Superfoodly



  • Bright, glowing, healthy skin

  • Slows down the aging process as it relates to skin, eyes, brain, joints, etc.

  • Protection against cardiovascular disease

  • Decreases risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease

  • Less risk of vision disorders (i.e. cataracts)

  • And more!!

Read my post "How to Make an Antioxidant Smoothie" to learn how you can start incorporating antioxidants into your diet TODAY!





As mentioned above, eating a diet rich in antioxidants can help keep your skin looking youthful. But what about all of the skin care products out there that are marketed as antioxidants?  

Using an antioxidant skincare product is one of the best ways to keep your complexion bright and glowing. When applied topically, antioxidants can help to prevent free radical accumulation from common stressors (UV radiation, chemicals, other toxins) that can destroy our skin’s collagen, thus causing wrinkles and other signs of aging.

During my research, I found that certain antioxidants are especially potent when applied topically, including:

  • Vitamins C and E

  • Ferulic acid

  • Caffeic acid

  • Phloretin

  • Resveratrol

  • Green tea

  • Grapeseed extract

  • Coenzyme Q10

So are all antioxidant skincare products created equal? Well, not exactly. Below are my top 3 picks for the most effective antioxidant serums on the market:

1. FutureDerm vitamin CE caffeic silk serum 16+2 This product has a smooth and silky application and it can give you real results. The unprecedented 16% vitamin C, 2% vitamin E, and caffeic acid are all excellent antioxidants that help scavenge UV-induced free radicals as well as stimulate collagen production in the skin.


2. Rodan and Fields REVERSE Dual Active Brightening Complex – This product contains vitamin C to effectively brighten the skin along with retinol to diminish signs of wrinkles and fine lines. Plus, this R+F combo is formulated with Kojic Acid and Licorice to improve the appearance of uneven skin tone over time.

3. Skinceuticals CE Ferulic – This product combines L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C), alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), and ferulic acid (a polyphenol) to maximize antioxidant performance. It made the top 3 list because of its proven efficacy: in 2003, an independent study by Lin et. al. found that the solution of 15% L-ascorbic acid and 1% alpha-tocopherol increases photoprotection against damaging UV rays and free radical formation.

Keep in mind that the best way to reap all of the benefits of antioxidants is to incorporate them into your skincare routine and your diet. This is because some topical products cannot reach the deepest layers of the skin and antioxidants in foods and supplements may not make it to the top layers, according to Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D., dermatologist in Miami, Florida.





So what are your thoughts on antioxidants? Do you have any favorite products? Share in the comments below