Free radicals are chemical species characterized by an odd number of orbital electrons or by pairs of electrons of similar directional spin isolated singly in separate orbitals. Consequently most of these agents are highly reactive and usually exhibit an extremely short half-life, although due to steric and resonance effects some exceptions occur. Some radicals and their precursors, such as the diradical O2 which exists in the triplet state, represent a critical and essential element of normal metabolism of aerobic organisms where, under normal circumstances, controlled reduction of reactive oxygen species occurs via the cytochrome oxidase or cytochrome P-450 mixed function monooxygenase systems. In addition to reactive oxygen species, organisms may be subjected to a wide-range of other free radicals or their precursors, including those of both exogenous and endogenous origin. Elaborate defense mechanisms have evolved to avoid cellular damage from these highly reactive species. Enzymes, such as the superoxide dismutase, the glutathione peroxidase/reductase system, and catalase; interactions with conjugated diene systems such as those found in melanins, carotenoids, and tocopherols; and direct reduction by sulphydryl compounds, phenols, and purines represent but a few of these natural defense systems.
Despite a strong rationale for considering free radicals as pathologic agents, progress in implicating these agents, or their reactions, in pathologic processes has been arduous. The fore-most hurdle to providing definitive evidence for free radical involvement rests with the highly transient nature of these species, hardly reaching measurable levels in vivo and thereby making rigorous testing of the hypothesis extremely difficult. Indeed, free radical damage has been studied, for the most part, by indirect means–usually by measurement of known free radical reaction intermediates and products from which free radical involvement is implied. Nevertheless, free radical formation has been shown to occur in UV-irradiated skin and a considerable body of circumstantial evidence has been amassed that strongly infers that these agents, or reactions initiated by them, are responsible for at least some of the deleterious effects of UV upon skin.