Free radicals are a by-product of your metabolism, created when your cells produce energy. Almost all of the oxygen you breathe is used for this purpose. The remaining oxygen molecules lose electrons, and those molecules become free radicals, also known as ROS (reactive oxygen species). These unstable molecules are like vampires that attack normal molecules to steal the electrons that they are missing.

Free radicals, Anti-Aging

Seeking to stabilize themselves, free radicals attack the fatty membrane of a cell or the DNA within the nucleus to appropriate electrons. Once the free radical steals electrons from its victim, the free radical is neutralized, but the victim becomes a new free radical, as if bitten by a vampire. That free radical steals electrons to stabilize itself, and a chain reaction begins.

Think of slices of apple left out on a plate. The apple turns brown. This is oxidation made visible. The same process is at work when metal rusts or tarnishes. In nature, everything eventually breaks down, and the human body is no different.

Many environmental factors speed the formation of free radicals, most notably exposure to the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays, a subject of importance I will discuss at length later. Free radicals are produced during the normal metabolism of food. Certain foods have a high potential for setting off a destructive cascade of free radicals. For example, foods that are fried at a high temperature can cause fat molecules to become unstable.

Toxic heavy metals like mercury, aluminum, lead, and cadmium create free radicals. Hormones like cortisol that are created when you are stressed also produce a free radical cascade. If free radical production goes out of control, inflammation results.

When it comes to your skin, free radicals are trouble. They attack the fats and proteins in the skin and severely damage skin cells, causing premature aging. The good news is that you can minimize free radical damage with simple lifestyle changes. You can replenish anti-oxidants with topical applications, supplements, and your diet. For instance, vitamins A, C, and E are anti-oxidants that slow the aging process by preventing free radicals from oxidizing other molecules.

The condition of your skin stems more directly from how you treat it than from your biological programming. The environment you create in your body can speed up or slow down the intrinsic aging process. What you eat, especially your consumption of alcohol and sugar, how much you sleep, your tobacco use, the level of stress in your life, anxiety, and depression—all play a role in how you age.

You have to make healthy choices if you want to delay the aging process. When you learn about the effects that your behavior and habits have on your skin. Understanding how some of your habits put the intrinsic aging processes into overdrive is an important first step. Learning how to stimulate cell renewal.

You now have an overview of what makes you age, both inside and out. You know the habits that will push you toward premature aging and accelerate the visible signs of skin aging. The next chapter probes more deeply into how the skin restores itself.