Skin acts as a barrier against the environment. Not only does it shield your internal organs, but it also protects you against viruses and bacteria. It also helps with temperature regulation. Like every other part of your body, your skin ages and loses some of its youthful smoothness and firmness over time. Ever wonder HOW your skin ages and what you can do to slow down that process? Let’s find out.
What’s the Number One Cause of Skin Aging?
Skin ages at different rates in different people. This is based partially on genetics. People who have more melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color, tend to age more slowly than people with fairer skin. It’s melanin that protects your skin against the damaging effects of sunlight.
Ultraviolet rays from the sun are the main driving force behind skin aging. According to dermatologists, 90% of skin aging is “photoaging,” aging related to sun exposure. Only about 10% of skin aging is independent of sun exposure. This means you can greatly slow down the aging process by wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against UVA and UVB rays) anytime you expose your skin to the sun.
How Sunlight Causes Your Skin to Age
Ultraviolet light is the major force behind skin aging – but why is it so bad? One theory is that ultraviolet light creates free radicals that damage skin cells, including cells in your dermis that produce collagen, a protein that gives your skin support, firmness and resistance to wrinkling.
Another protein called elastin in the dermis gives your skin elasticity. Free radicals generated by ultraviolet light not only damage skin cells, but they also break down collagen and elastin. If you look into the dermis of your skin with a microscope, you’d see damaged, disorganized collagen and elastin. In terms of what you see on the surface, you’d see skin wrinkling and loss of firmness.
Keeping Your Skin Youthful and Healthy
Obviously, you want to keep your skin as smooth and firm as possible. Protecting your skin from ultraviolet light is one thing you can do to slow down skin aging. Another is to protect your skin with antioxidants. Antioxidants give your skin some protection against free radicals produced by sun exposure. That’s why you see more skin care products that contain antioxidants such as vitamin C, coenzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid, green tea extract, and pomegranate. All of these have antioxidant activity. Small studies show topical antioxidants may offer protection against skin aging.
What about dietary antioxidants? It’s not clear whether getting lots of antioxidants through diet protects your skin against aging, although one study showed lycopenes, in processed tomatoes, improves the appearance of more mature skin.
One of the most effective treatments for sun-damaged skin is a group of vitamin A derivatives called retinoids. You’re probably familiar with retinoids in prescription skin creams like Retin A used to treat acne and skin wrinkling. Research shows retinoids improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. They also stimulate collagen production to improve your skin’s internal support structure. Retinoids can cause skin irritation, especially when you first start using them. Another option is to use skin creams with retinol. Retinol is a non-prescription vitamin A derivative that causes less skin irritation. You can find it in some anti-aging skin care products.
What You Can Do to Prevent Skin Aging:
Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day. Put on a hat and sunglasses for additional protection.
Look for skin care products enriched with antioxidants and retinol.
Eat an antioxidant-rich diet.
Skin Becomes Dryer with Age
Another way skin changes with age is it becomes dryer. Some of this is a product of hormonal changes that occur with age, but there’s another reason. Lipids or fats in the outer layer of your skin that bind skin cells together decrease in number. This makes it harder for your skin to hold in moisture. One of the most important class of lipids that help your skin hold onto water is called ceramides.
Skin cells also turn over at a slower rate with age. When you’re young, the skin cells that make up the outer layer of your skin are shed about every 40 days. By the time you reach your fifties, the rate slows by about 50%. That means dead skin cells build up on the surface of your skin causing it to look dull and dry.
What You Can Do
Use a moisturizer that contains ceramides immediately after cleansing your skin. Apply it while your skin is still damp. The moisturizer will help your skin hold in the moisture. Install a humidifier in your house if you live in a dry environment.
Exfoliate your skin once or twice a week using an exfoliating pad made for your face to remove dead skin cells and restore your skin’s natural glow.
Pigmented Areas and Uneven Skintone
When your skin is exposed to the sun over many years, your skin cells produce more melanin to help protect it. You may begin to see areas of increased pigmentation referred to as sun spots. Hormonal changes that happen around the time of menopause also cause excess pigmentation in some women. When you look in the mirror, your skin tone may appear uneven due to these changes.
What You Can Do
Protecting your skin against the sun is one way to prevent sunspots. Once you have them, look for products with ingredients like hydroquinone that block melanin production and gradually lighten sun spots and pigmented areas. Hydroquinone 4% is available by prescription but a 2% solution is available without a prescription. It’s in some skin lightening products. Unfortunately, hydroquinone can rarely cause serious side effects and it’s been linked with cancer in animals.
Other more natural options for lightening pigmented areas include kojic acid, licorice root Retinoids, including retinol, may also lighten pigmented areas over time. Another option is to use products that contain alpha-hydroxy-acids like glycolic acid that help to lift away dead skin cells including cells containing pigment.
The Bottom Line?
There’s a lot you can do to protect your skin against aging and improve the appearance of skin that’s already showing the effects of time. Take advantage of them for skin that’s firmer, smoother and more youthful.
Skin Therapy Letter. “Antioxidants Used in Skin Care Formulations”
Arch Dermatol. 2002 Nov;138(11):1462-70.
The British Journal of Dermatology. 2010;163(6):1157-1165.
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