Reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (ROS/RNS) which may exist as radicals or nonradicals, as well as reactive sulfur species and reactive carbon species, play a major role in aging processes and in carcinogenesis. These reactive molecule species (RMS), often referred to as ‘free radicals' or oxidants, are partly by-products of the physiological metabolism. When RMS concentrations exceed a certain threshold, cell compartments and cells are injured and destroyed. Endogenous physiological mechanisms are able to neutralize RMS to some extent, thereby limiting damage. In the skin, however, pollutants and particularly UV irradiation are able to produce additional oxidants which overload the endogenous protection system and cause early aging, debilitation of immune functions, and skin cancer. The application of antioxidants from various sources in skin care products and food supplements is therefore widespread, with increasingly effective formulations being introduced. The harmful effects of RMS (aside from impaired structure and function of DNA, proteins, and lipids) are: interference with specific regulatory mechanisms and signaling pathways in cell metabolism, resulting in chronic inflammation, weakening of immune functions, and degradation of tissue. Important control mechanisms are: MAP-kinases, the aryl-hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), the antagonistic transcription factors nuclear factor-κB and Nrf2 (nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2), and, especially important, the induction of matrix metalloproteinases which degrade dermal connective tissue. Recent research, however, has revealed that RMS and in particular ROS/RNS are apparently also produced by specific enzyme reactions in an evolutionarily adapted manner. They may fulfill important physiologic functions such as the activation of specific signaling chains in the cell metabolism, defense against infectious pathogens, and regulation of the immune system. Normal physiological conditions are characterized by equilibrium of oxidative and antioxidative mechanisms. The application of antioxidants in the form of 'cosmeceuticals' or systemic 'nutraceuticals' should aim to support a physiologically balanced oxidation status in the skin.

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