Most skin damage comes from exposure to sunlight and environmental toxins. How do sunlight and pollutants damage skin? How can you protect yourself from environmental hazards that age skin?

Free radicals – the wild bunch

Free radicals form on the skin when exposed to sunlight or certain toxins by unpaired electrons, free radicals break down collagen – the “glue” that holds skin together, making it look firm and wrinkle-free. Free radicals can also damage skin cells, perhaps causing blotches or even skin cancer.

Beyond environmental elements, when you exercise, your body increases its need for oxygen. In turn, this need for added oxygen seems to produce more free radicals, which oxidize the fats within the membranes of muscle cells. This oxidization process makes the cells more vulnerable to the effects of aging.

How antioxidants combat free radicals and aging

To combat the damage inflicted by the powerful free radicals, antioxidants absorb or transfer their energy, neutralizing the aging factors. As an added protection from the environmental attacks of free radicals derived from sunlight, cigarette smoke, or certain pollutants, your skin produces more antioxidants on the surface of your body than on lower skin layers. In other words, your body tries to produce a natural barrier against attack.

Consuming foods high in antioxidants – or – oranges, apricots, broccoli, vegetable oils, carrots, and more – can help protect your body against cancer-causing environmental hazards.

No wonder antioxidants added to creams, lotions, and moisturizers now join in the defense against prematurely aged skin. The army of free radical warriors includes, but is not limited to, vitamins C and E, and, interestingly, green tea extract.

The skin defenders of choice

Vitamin C. This vitamin helps combat, internally and externally, the effects of smoking and sunlight, factors that help increase free radicals and destroy skin collagen.

It appears to prevent sun damage, even after sun exposure. Because vitamin C absorbs into your skin, washing or perspiration cannot wash off the vitamin, unlike sunscreens.

Many researchers agree that this antioxidant vitamin in skin creams, lotions, and moisturizers can help protect the skin long enough to give it a chance to heal and repair itself.

One note of caution, however: vitamin C can burn the skin. Never use your own “concoctions.” Use natural skin moisturizers with vitamin C, like those found in your health food store, especially formulated to avoid skin irritations.

Vitamin E. Applying vitamin E to the skin also may help prevent skin irregularities, including cancer, claim researchers. Ultraviolet radiation lowers your immune system’s ability to combat tumor formation. in studies, vitamin E helped boost the skin’s defenses against skin cancers.

Because vitamin E helps block the effects of the sun, researchers are also looking at the possibility of this antioxidant as a sunblock. Like vitamin C, vitamin E accumulates on and absorbs into the skin so you need not worry about the vitamin washing off. Perhaps because vitamin E acts as a sunblock and/or because it halts free-radical damage, it also appears to reduce wrinkles and fine facial. lines, say researchers.

Some people’s skin may produce an allergic reaction to vitamin E. Ask your dermatologist before using any new skin cream. Your local health food store has the most hypoallergenic creams available.

Tea time for the skin

Another antioxidant comes from a surprising source – green tea. Researchers have discovered green tea helps prevent tumors. Especially significant, green tea seems to inhibit tumors at various stages. Because skin blotches consist of layers of skin cells, green tea in skin creams may help prevent “age spots.” Such uneven patches of skin or thickened skin grow as a defense against sun damage. This explains why the age spots appear on sun-exposed skin areas on the sides of your face or on your hands.

Once the days grow shorter and darker, many pack sunscreens away until next summer; well, don’t. Your skin might not burn during winter months, but the aging effects of the sun and pollution still harm skin. Use moisturizers regularly. Look for those containing sunscreens. An SPF of at least 12 helps protect against the aging sun rays of winter months. Try the new antioxidant skin lotions and moisturizers found in your health food store.