Hormesis slide

The antioxidant controversy, illuminated, inspired by misuse of science by Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty product


Dear anyone who is interested in anti-aging science or products. Do not support Meaningful Beauty by Cindy Crawford. It is complete and utter bunk.

They claim that Superoxide Dismutase (SOD) is extracted from some rare melon in France, with the implication that this enzyme is only present in said melon. Number 1: This is absolutely false. I don’t know what supposed melon they are talking about, but superoxide dismutases (SODs) are extremely conserved enzymes that are present from Bacteria to Humans. They are a very large family of enzymes (Pubmed has over 5000 entries as shown in the link above) that have a variety of uses depending on the situation. Nobody ever legitimately refers to or calls any SOD “The Youth Molecule”.

Number 2: The Free Radical theory of aging holds no longer holds any ground within the scientific community. This is particularly true for those who keep up to date with research related to aging and stress. Thanks largely to Denham Harman‘s The Free Radical Theory of Aging and the models built from its foundation, free radicals, reactive oxygen species (ROS), and oxidative stress in general were once thought to be responsible for the deterioration associated with aging and aging-related changes. It is certainly the case that, in most if not all organisms, a significant overabundance of oxidative stress may have profoundly detrimental effects on cells and tissues that appear remarkably like signs of advanced age. However, for essentially all higher eukaryotes including humans, our cells have mechanisms that deal with ROS and oxidative stress very effectively.

Our cells’ repair machinery is, in fact, so effective that the compensatory mechanisms that are activated in response to ROS and oxidative stress go beyond the initial insult and act to deal with other stresses that have or will cause cellular damage. This phenomenon has recently been dubbed Hormesis (also styled mitohormesis in some articles, referring specifically to Hormesis of the mitochondria; Ageing Research Reviews has a wonderful section dedicated to Hormesis).

Put simply, Hormesis is the process whereby a threshold level of stress results in a compensatory response that goes above and beyond the initial stimulus. This therefore leads to an added protective effect for our cells and tissues. In the case of aging, limited amounts of oxidative stress can activate mechanisms, primarily in the form of stress response factors, which deal with ROS and the affected cellular components. The negative feedback activities of these stress response factors are not necessarily inhibited immediately following resolution of the stimulus. The repair mechanisms continue to propagate throughout the cell.

Other cellular components that have deteriorated, to an extent below the threshold required for stress response factor activation, may also be restored by this propagating wave of repair machinery. These damaged proteins and DNA molecules need not have been the intended “targets” for repair, but because of the cell’s overcompensation for the stress that did reach threshold levels, these other cellular components benefited as well. The ultimate manifestation of this phenomenon is an extension of lifespan and increased resistance to cellular stress. Strikingly, if animals with mildly increased levels of ROS are treated with antioxidants, this treatment completely removes the lifespan increase that would otherwise occur.

This principle is completely translatable to human beings and our lifestyles. A current model building a lot of momentum in the community is that the cardiovascular and other health benefits that have been tied to regular exercise actually extend from an increase in ROS. At least one study has shown that treating humans with antioxidants following exercise eliminates the benefits of exercise. This specific study has been published in the very reputable journal PNAS and is flat out titled “Antioxidants prevent health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans“. In other words, if you run a couple miles then go home and chug a bunch of trendy vitamin water with loads of “antioxidants” you are actually inhibiting the benefits you obtained from that exercise. This is SCIENCE FACT.

Thus, slathering superoxide dismutase all over your skin will not inhibit skin aging. In fact, it is much more likely that any reduction of ROS due to SOD will actually prevent the live cells in your dermis from receiving stress signals that result in an upregulation of processes involved in the removal of that stress. SOD will inhibit Hormesis from occurring and you will actually be facing a detriment by using this.

Bottom line: The antioxidant fad is actually harmful if your goal is to live a longer healthier life. Let your cells’ repair mechanisms do what they are supposed to do.


In fact, James Watson, the somewhat controversial figure and one of the initial discoverers of the structure of DNA, has recently endorsed the idea that antioxidants may actually be contributing to cancer. This is possible through the mechanism I outlined above, whereby antioxidants prevent ROS from signaling to repair mechanisms.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to ask me any questions.

This post will likely be updated with more details as I see fit to add them and as the field grows to understand these processes better.


8 thoughts on “The antioxidant controversy, illuminated, inspired by misuse of science by Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty product

  1. Pingback: The antioxidant controversy, illuminated, inspired by misuse of science by Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty product | DelicioSciPhi

  2. Pingback: Wow, That Antioxidant Is Really Healthy « gossippanda

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  5. Bob

    Helpful summary, thank you. I wonder though if we might be overemphasizing partially demonstrated theory here however, at least to some extent. “At least one study” seems to hold almost no water in a science that deals with such biological complexity we often seem to have little idea what is really going on. Hence regardless of putative mechanism clinical studies constantly deal surprises. Mechanisms give us some Bayesian prior, I just don’t doubt at all the real world response *could* be a complete surprise. Feels like we’re claiming a lot more certainty here than is justified by the messiness / complexity of biology and medicine. (Full disclosure: I know absolutely nothing and have no interest in SOD…just reacting to the tone of certainty here).

  6. Dr. DNA

    As an infectious disease specialist, the amount of junk-science in those Meaningful Beauty commercials is astounding!!! Any parent that has wanted their kids’ carved Halloween pumpkin to last longer than a week has done a simple internet search and found that all you have to do to make a pumpkin/gourd/melon last longer is to wash it with anti-bacterial soap. Why? Because it’s bacteria that is almost entirely responsible for rot in fruit and veg. So this melon in France- it as the superoxide dismutase in its skin. What a surprise, SOD is also a potent antibacterial agent! THAT is the mechanism that allows this melon to not rot (Cindy’s word is “age” –whatEVER!) as fast as other melons.


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