Glutathione is an antioxidant that each cell in your body is able to make. We get most of our antioxidants from food sources, but cells are able to synthesize their own glutathione from three amino acids, glycine, l-glutamic acid and l-cysteine. That’s a good thing since glutathione is important for protecting cells against oxidative damage, the type of damage that comes from exposure to oxygen. It’s sometimes referred to as the “master antioxidant” because it recycles other antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E. Once an antioxidant donates an electron to neutralize a cell-damaging free radical, it needs to get an electron back to make it functional again. Without this recycling, other antioxidants would eventually lose their ability to protect cells from damage. Even worse, they could turn into pro-oxidants and damage other healthy cells. Therefore, antioxidants work together as a network to support each other and protect cells.
Glutathione plays a vital role in the health of every cell in the body, but it’s found in highest concentration in the liver where it helps this particular organ to detoxify and break down drugs, heavy metals, toxins and carcinogens. When the liver has higher levels of glutathione, it’s able to better do its job of detoxifying. Glutathione is also important for normal immune function and resistance against disease. In addition, its antioxidant activity makes it a natural for controlling disease-causing inflammation. People who are ill and the elderly often have lower levels of glutathione than healthy people, and low levels are linked with poorer health.
Research is looking at the possibility of using glutathione to treat a variety of diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, cataracts, chronic fatigue syndrome, hepatitis, liver disease, heart disease and heavy metal poisoning. An inhaled version is used to treat some lung diseases, and an injectable form is used to treat the side-effects of cancer chemotherapy, Parkinson’s disease and male infertility.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to supplement with glutathione orally since it’s not well absorbed by the intestinal tract. That’s why some people boost their levels by taking other glutathione-supporting supplements like alpha-lipoic acid, milk thistle or n-acetyl-cysteine as a way to indirectly boost glutathione levels. Exercise also appears to increase glutathione. To make glutathione, your body needs adequate amounts of sulfur, cysteine and B-vitamins. Eating a well-rounded diet of unprocessed food with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables supplies the nutrients your body needs to maximize glutathione production.
With glutathione being so critical for keeping cells healthy, it’s not surprising it’s found its way into cosmetic and personal care products. Skin cells are also subject to oxidative damage from exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun and from pollutants in the environment. At least half of sun-related skin damage is due to free radical formation, and there’s mounting evidence that topical antioxidants like glutathione, alpha-lipoic acid and vitamin C can mitigate some of this damage and reduce the signs of skin aging.
Topical antioxidants may also protect against some types of skin cancer. When combined with sunscreen, antioxidants offer greater protection against sunburn and sun damage than sunscreen alone. Because of their anti-inflammatory benefits, antioxidants like glutathione may also reduce skin inflammation after procedures like laser resurfacing. Combinations of antioxidants may be synergistic and more effective than a single antioxidant in a product. That’s why cosmetic and skin care products often contain more than one antioxidant. Some products that may contain glutathione include facial scrubs, moisturizers, anti-aging products, toners, exfoliating products and sunscreen.
Is it safe? There are oral supplements of glutathione available, but they may not be well absorbed. Since glutathione is found naturally in the body, it’s unlikely to be harmful. If it’s inhaled by people with asthma, it can cause breathing problems, and it may interact with some medications. Glutathione appears to be safe in the amount found in cosmetic and personal care products. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database classifies it as a low hazard cosmetic ingredient.
All in all, glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that may have skin anti-aging benefits when used topically, especially when used in combination with other antioxidants like vitamin C, alpha-lipoic acid or coenzyme q10.