What is an Antioxidant? The Pub/Drunk Man Analogy.

antioxidants in skincare

Please don’t read this if you don’t want a quite long-winded explanation about antioxidants and how they work. It’s supposed to be a relatively fun bit of supplementary material to go with my main post on the same subject: What will an Antioxidant do for my Skin? If you would prefer a briefer explanation and then a list of recommended antioxidant products then please go straight to that post – I don’t want to give you a headache! Especially when my analogy is possibly quite hazy in terms of accuracy and so on… I’m not expecting many people to read this so I’m kind of hiding it in the system and it won’t go out in any emails or feeds. If you’re reading on then thank you and also, apologies in advance. Ha.

Staying put? OK!

The main post talks about how important antioxidants are for our bodies and – more specifically, because I’m concerned with beauty here – our skin. It begins by discussing how antioxidants can help to protect our skin against the damage caused by things like pollution and the environment and cigarette smoking. (Of course, you could give up smoking, which is altogether a brilliant idea.) In this post I want to just delve a little further into what antioxidants are and what they do. It’s not too science-y, mainly because I’m not a scientist, but I’ve spent a fair while reading about antioxidants over the past couple of years and I wanted to just get down the basics. So here we go: crazy attempt at explaining something completely out of my comfort zone, take ONE!

Antioxidants are substances that inhibit oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that happens all the time in our bodies – it’s necessary for the most basic things that keep us alive, like producing energy and building proteins. But when oxidation happens, complete molecules that were nice and happy (with “full outer shells” if you want to get technical and you remember your GCSE science!) suddenly have part of them missing (an electron, or electrons) and they become desperate to get that part of them (electron/s) back and become whole again. They go on a crazy rampage trying to find an electron and inevitably end up nicking one from a neighbouring molecule, which then in turn becomes reactive and unstable and goes on the rampage. This whole reactive, unstable rampaging business is what damages cells and – to put it very simply – ages things. It’s the same process when food goes off or when a car goes rusty – the oxidation process is an “ageing” one. Now all is not lost – bear with me here, only a few moments until my amazingly inaccurate pub analogy! – because the body has a very sophisticated way of stopping these free radicals from running amok. Antioxidants. They are there in our cells acting as neutralising agents – like a kind of quiet police presence that keeps the rebels under control. And they do a fine job, for most of the time. The problem comes when cells are subjected to things like UV exposure and pollution and environmental changes and the usual antioxidant forces can’t cope with the sheer number of free radicals that are flying off the handle at each other. That’s when we have problems, Houston, and not just on the surface – not just on skin level! Having a massive overload of free radicals buzzing about like a sackful of angry ants is not great news for the body at all.

And now, behold my borderline-insane pub/drunk man analogy. For if my slapdash, long-forgotten A Level Chemistry knowledge wasn’t enough to tip you over the edge (I think I got a “D” in this particular module) this will surely do it.

Imagine a very drunk, very angry man. His name is Shane. He has a pint of lager and that pint is, at this particular moment, the most important thing in his life. It’s a part of him. It’s two minutes to kicking out time at the Star and Garter, you see, and last orders have been and gone – this will be his final drink of the night. The most important drink for a habitual, nightly piss-head like himself. He wouldn’t be separated from his pint for all the money in the world – he would fight to the death to keep hold of his pint.

Now this pub – the Star and Garter – tends to get quite a bit of trouble. The lads from the town hate the farmers that come in and the farmers hate the townies. Please – if you can manage this – imagine the pub as your body and the drinkers, the townies and the farmers, as molecules. The molecules/drinkers are always jostling each other and then now and again little scuffles threaten to break out – but here’s the thing: the staff at the Star and Garter, the antioxidants, are well-trained at keeping these scuffles at bay. They know how to deal with them, how to placate the drinkers (molecules) and they stop the scuffles before they can even begin. Because when the scuffles start (oxidation!) the drinkers (molecules!) usually end up nicking each others pints (ELECTRONS!) and then the trouble really starts! Without their pints, the drinkers (molecules – keep up) are incomplete and would do absolutely anything to get their pint back. They become reactive and volatile and crash into the next person to try and get their pint, causing untold amounts of damage. Yes, dear readers: the drinker without his beloved last pint is a FREE RADICAL.

(Excuse me for a second, I just have to go and hit myself repeatedly with a rolling pin.)

And so. The Antioxidants  – I mean staff – at the pub are well-versed in crowd control. Because if a night turns into a load of Free Radical action, it’s hard to stop it. Things get out of control really quickly and before you know it, tables are being chucked through the windows and farmers are cracking chair legs over people’s heads and heavy boots are being smashed into the mirrors in the toilets. Most of the time, the staff (the antioxidants) can keep a handle on things. They are always there, always present in their quiet yet efficient way.

But not tonight.

Every few weeks, a biker gang comes to town. There are about fifty big men on motorcycles and they weave through the streets, beeping and whistling at he ladies and generally making people feel uncomfortable. (Think Mad Max, if you’re old enough, otherwise…I don’t know. The scene from Twilight when all of those wolf people turn up and still nobody can manage to pull a facial expression but, nevertheless, you know that the shit’s about to hit the fan.) And every time the bikers visit, with their smelly leather waistcoats and their noisy machines, they inevitably stop for a few drinks at the Star and Garter. They like this particular pub because not only does it do a fine Guinness, it is full of men to pick a fight with.

Tonight (it’s a Monday), the biker gang comes into town and the men pour into the pub after last orders, demanding a drink. Shane, our bleary-eyed drunkard, (keep up) turns around to see the massive group of rowdy men banging on the bar and heckling the staff. He grips his pint more tightly. There’s no way he’s letting his last pint go, not on your nelly! The shouting and heckling at the bar gets worse and Shane is alarmed to see that the bar staff, usually so calm and collected and used to dealing with trouble, look pale-faced and shaky. Something big is about to kick off, Shane thinks, and Shane is right: the very next second, one of the bikers – a man with the word DEATH tattooed across his forehead – turns to one of the townies and takes his pint. Just plucks it out of the man’s hand! Shane can’t believe it, but he barely has time to ruminate over this awful event before the townie starts whirling about him, screaming for his lost pint, and suddenly smacks Shane straight in the chops.

Dramatic pause.

As Shane tries to regain his composure, the pint is taken from his hands. Yes, dear readers of this analogy – possibly readers no more after today, ha! – Shane LOSES HIS PINT. For Shane, this is the end of the world. He is like a molecule with an unpaired electron – he is unstable and reactive and he will do ANYTHING to get a pint back in his hand and feel like a whole man again. He is – yes, please admire the very pinnacle of my analogy, though there is more to come – he is a Free Radical. Shane goes whirling about, flailing his arms like a windmill. He must get a pint! He falls back on a table and all of the empty glasses go crashing to the floor; in anger, he kicks a chair and the leg snaps off. Then he turns to one of the bikers, one who has managed to bully a fresh new pint from the barmaid, and he pokes the man between the eyes and, like someone on a suicide mission, takes the biker man’s pint.

Well. I don’t even need to tell you the chaos that ensues. Anyone would think that a free radical chain reaction was taking place! Broken windows, smashed skulls, men nicking one another’s pints… Before long, the damage that has been wreaked upon the Star and Garter is terrible – the pub will suffer massive losses and it’ll have to stay closed for the rest of the month. And this isn’t the worst thing; the worst thing is that this biker group will come back, or a different one will, and the damage will happen over and over again. And if we think about the damages of things like pollution and environmental changes and UV exposure, just as an example; are these not a bit like biker groups? The kind of rumpus that the normal antioxidant levels (bar staff at the Star and Garter) can’t quite handle?

Nearly over – massage your temples for a few seconds, would you?

Now imagine that the bar hired some more staff. Some more highly-trained staff who are good at quenching trouble before it starts, but also some ass-kicking karate black-belted ex-marine staff who would be able to deal with ANYTHING. Twenty thousand bikers pop in for a pint? No problemo! Wouldn’t that be great? And this, my long-suffering readers, is where the analogy comes to a close: what if your body (the Star and Garter pub) had more antioxidants (bar staff) so that not only would the normal everyday oxidation reactions (normal drinkers) be kept under control, any outside stresses such as environmental aggressors and pollution (the visiting bikers) wouldn’t cause as much cell damage (broken chairs and windows)? The body (pub), with less damage, would surely be “younger” for longer. The pub would definitely look better, at any rate!

To cut a ridiculously long story short, the more antioxidants we can introduce into our body to help stop the cellular bar brawls before they start, the better. We can get these antioxidants in our diet – there are many different types of antioxidant that can be gained from a massive variety of sources, see here for quite a nice list – but we can also benefit from topical application, which is where antioxidant skincare comes in. If you have any remaining will to live, then do please click on over to the main post! I take full responsibility for those of you who have lost the capacity to form a sentence…

If you’d like to leave a comment then please do so on the main post as I’m not sure you can on here – at any rate, it probably wouldn’t show up on my list.

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