What Are Oxidants?

By Andrea Sigust
Oxidants are naturally and artificially produced.

The term “antioxidant” has become a household word synonymous with good health. In turn, the word “oxidant” may logically infer bad health. However, oxidant actually has different implications depending nature of the subject matter -- for example, biological versus industrial systems. This is because at base, an oxidant is a substance that accepts electrons. Thus, just as the substances and processes involved will vary, so will the connotation of oxidant.

Oxidizing Agent

An oxidant is also called an oxidizing agent. Oxidizing agents can be expressed in the form of a single molecule, a compound (a mixture of substances) or an element. An oxidant is usually expressed as a molecule when the subject pertains to biological functions. These biological oxidants are formed during various types of intracellular processes such as metabolism and inflammatory reactions. When an oxidant is expressed as a compound, it generally pertains to chemical functions. Chemical oxidants can be artificially created through industrial or manufacturing processes, such as with hydrogen peroxide or ferric salt. Oxidants expressed as natural elements --- such as oxygen or iodine -- can pertain to either biological or chemical functions.

Oxidants or oxidizing agents are electron acceptors that cause “oxidation” on a biological or chemical level. Previously, the term oxidation was applied to reactions that exclusively involved oxygen. However, today, it is acknowledged that oxidation can be caused by oxidants, with or without the prevalence of oxygen. Whether oxidants or oxidation is “good” depends on the nature of the reactions and their consequences.

Chemical Oxidation

Chemical oxidation occurs when one or more electrons are lost within a substance through contact with and reaction to an oxidant. An example of this is when iron comes in contact with oxygen (an oxidant) and moisture. The reaction corrodes the iron and produces a red-orange residue. This is an oxidation process is called rusting.

Oxidation on a chemical level is also used commercially through “oxidation technologies.” These technologies are derived from catalyzing the oxidation of various substances to treat contaminated soil, wastewater and other material.

Biological Oxidation

Like chemical oxidation, biological oxidation occurs when electrons are removed from a substance. However, the processes diverge with biological oxidation taking place on a different atomic or molecular level. For instance, glucose is oxidized when hydrogen atoms are removed and combined with an oxidant during the process of cellular respiration. This type of biological oxidation is a beneficial process that creates energy for an organism.

However, other forms of biological oxidation can be harmful to an organism. These interactions involve oxidants that damage biological material such as DNA and protein, contributing to degenerative diseases. These oxidants are created by natural processes such as metabolism. Negative forms of oxidation such as this, have generated a plethora of health information pertaining to substances that can help offset the interactions. These counteracting substances are called antioxidants.


The antioxidants that combat the effects of harmful biological oxidation come in the form of compounds; and are found in various foods, herbs and extracts. A few of these antioxidants include vitamins C, A and E; selenium; beta carotene and grape seed extract. These and other can be obtained by consuming fruits, vegetables and nutritional supplements.

About the Author

Andrea Sigust began writing professionally in 1994, authoring user-friendly manuals, reference guides and information sheets while working at a hospital. After years of working in industries ranging from health care to telecommunications, Sigust became a writer. She specializes in the sciences and holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Maryland.