How to protect your skin properly

Free radicals can cause serious skin damage. One dermatologist explains how to protect your skin effectively.

09 April 2015
by Dr Len Nel

What are free radicals?

To understand free radicals, you might need a quick refresher course in high school science. The human body is composed of many different types of cells, and in turn, these cells are formed of many different molecules. Each molecule is formed from atoms of one or more elements joined by chemical bonds.

The goal of an atom is to be as stable as possible, by balancing the number of electrons and protons it contains. If there is an uneven number of electrons and protons in an atom, it becomes very unstable and is then called a free radical.

Free radicals are highly reactive to other substances and can cause oxidative damage to the DNA, nuclei and membranes of the cells around them as they “steal” electrons to stabilise themselves. An example of oxidative damage is the flesh of an apple turning brown after it is sliced open.

Coating the apple in lemon juice would hamper oxidation and prevent it from turning brown. Anti-oxidants work in a similar way, to protect cells from free radical damage.

What can we do about them?

The primary cause of oxidative or free radical damage in skin is exposure to the sun. Pollution is also a factor. You can protect against free radical damage by wearing sunscreen and protective clothing vigilantly.

It is also vital to eat multiple servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily as these are rich in flavonoids and polyphenols as well as high in beta-carotene and vitamins C, E and A.

Taking supplements containing the above-mentioned ingredients also goes a long way. These foods will help you fight free radicals from the inside out


Anti-oxidants help to lessen the cell damage from free radicals, so it is important to select your skin care regime carefully to ensure you are as protected as possible.

These anti-oxidants need to be present in your night cream as well as day cream, to repair and arm the skin in preparation for the day to follow. If you apply a product containing free radical scavengers at night, it will enhance your sunscreen’s ability to protect you the following day.

Look out for mention of anti-oxidant ingredients such as white tea, soy, vitamin E or vitamin C – and, of course, SPF – before buying skin care products to give your skin the protection it needs.