YOU KNOW, WHEN WE ARE YOUNG, ADULTS GIVE US ADVICE (OR TRY, anyway) or share information, andwe interpret it one way. But as we age, we begin to interpret those words of wisdom differently. Those of you in my age group (forties) and older understand. Those of you who are younger will find out soon enough. And I’m certainly not saying this because I’m a know-it-all. I cringe when I look back on my sixteen-year-old self, who had given my parents a run for their money, with nights of worry, and had told my dad, “You’re not the boss of me!”
As a sixteen-year-old, I doubt I would have listened to this forty-five-plus-years-old self giving out advice about aging. But here goes, because I know I have young fans who are more mature than I was at their age and who may wonder what they can do now to help the aging process. In this era of social media pressure and technology that allows us to look perfect—no blemishes, no scars, straight teeth—you may think you are in trouble because your skin isn’t flawless. Trust me, everyone’s hiding something, showing themselves only in the best light possible. It is confusing and intimidating, and freakin’ expensive to decide what to do about our skin.
But today we have more insight than ever for how to guide skin back to a more youthful appearance or at least slow down the ticking of the clock! Despite the infinite number of new antiaging potions, lotions, serums, creams, and so on vying for our attention, true chemical advancements in the anti-aging field are relatively few. Basic, tried-and-true skincare strategies have worked to fight aging for decades. No one talks about this truth. Businesses capitalize on our desire to stay young. The skincare industry, especially anti-aging, is a worldwide multibillion-dollar industry. It’s expected to total $191.7 billion in 2019 with an ever-rising ceiling. Changing basic lifestyle habits and amping up protective measures and education, however, can upend the effects of aging that unhealthy indulgences may have planted on our skin. We can reliably turn to these in our quest to have younger skin and achieve greater health.
In this article, I explain what we know so far about what happens to our body when we age, and what factors speed up this process the most. I mainly focus on the face, since this is how we present ourselves to the world. When I held my firstborn boy as a baby, cheek to cheek, and peered at us in the mirror, I was shocked to see how different my skin looked from his close up. We divide the causes of aging into two broad categories: intrinsic (internal factors) and extrinsic (external factors). Intrinsic aging refers to the natural, internal process that occurs regardless of outside factors. Our genes largely control when intrinsic aging begins, but we can slow its progressing. Extrinsic or external agers are caused by environmental factors and habits including how much sun we get, whether or not we smoke, our exposure to air and other kinds of pollution, how many Zs we catch, our eating habits, and exercise.
As we age, new bone formation slows, and bone resorption is increased. The facial bones in general become less prominent, more flattened, which is probably most obvious in our cheekbones and around our eyes. Tooth loss also leads to a more sunken facial appearance. Depressing, isn’t it? Many of the wrinkles we develop on our face are due to repeated movements of our facial muscles, the muscles that make our expressions. Smiling so many times in our lifetimes and creating those crow’s-feet creases repeatedly on the sides of our eyes eventually can cause those lines to stay there even when we are not smiling! Frowning creates permanent “11s” between our eyebrows, and raising our eyebrows in excitement and amazement can etch horizontal lines across our forehead. Our skin and hair changes with age. There’s a loss in elasticity and increased dryness and thinning of the skin, and brown spots appear, along with, of course, the dreaded wrinkles. I’m reminded this is happening when I wake up and have sleep lines from my pillow on my cheek, and an hour later, I still have those sleep lines! Intrinsic hair loss is happening too; no one’s hair thickens as we age, although we do tend to get more errant hairs in areas we never had them before, like the chin, the nose, and the ears. Gravity. I include the force of gravity as an intrinsic ager even though it’s not really internal. However, it can’t be avoided unless you get that ticket to live on Mars or the moon, or you spend most of your life standing on your head.
Extrinsic agers are external, potentially more controllable factors such as our diet, how much we expose our skin to the sun, our lifestyle, whether we smoke or not, how much sleep we get, and how stressed we are on a daily or consistent basis. In general, our face appears as an upside-down triangle in youth, and as we age, the triangle inverts.
Extrinsic aging factors cause a thickening of the cornified layer of the skin, precancerous changes such as lesions called actinic keratoses, skin cancer (including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma), freckle and sunspot formation, and loss of collagen, elastin, and glycosaminoglycans. This results in skin that is rough, uneven, spotty, and wrinkled.
THE FOUR MAIN CULPRITS OF AGING SKIN
Free radicals are electronically unstable and reactive molecules that intensify aging by damaging cells. They are created as by-products of the normal burning of fuel that occurs in every cell. Your skin is also especially vulnerable to free radical damage from external sources such as ultraviolet light from the sun and the accumulation of pollutants, especially if you live in a big city. Stress and habits such as smoking and tanning (either from the sun or lying on a tanning bed) contribute to free radicals.
Glycation leads to premature aging, along with a number of diseases. The process occurs on a cellular level when excess sugar molecules in our body bond with protein molecules. The new molecules are called advanced glycation end products (aka the extremely not-funny acronym AGEs). AGEs are harmful compounds that create oxidative stress, which damages tissues. AGEs prematurely age the body and wreak havoc on our health. The cross-linking chemical reaction causes permanent damage to the function and structure of the protein molecules, the majority of which are healthy collagen. Sugar consumes healthy collagen fibers and elastin, weakening them and reducing their elasticity, causing skin to look dull and dehydrated. Skin damage begins to accelerate, leading to wrinkles, deep lines, sagging skin, and loss of volume in the face. Combined with sun exposure, AGEs also cause sun spots; hyperpigmentation; dull, hard, uneven skin; inflammation; and tumors. AGEs make our skin more vulnerable to UV light and cigarette smoke. That’s another reason staying out of the sun as we age is the smart move. While compromised skin is a visible sign of AGEs’ damage, it’s also responsible for “invisible diseases” including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Too much sun exposure is a big deal—in case you haven’t noticed by now, soaking up the sun for extended periods of time without protection is one of my pet peeves. It causes up to 90 percent of skin cancer. It’s no accident that the major focus of the anti-aging skincare industry is to create products meant to counteract the sun’s negative effects on the skin. We all know that the sun causes many of the visible signs of aging, but how, exactly? Skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis (top layer), the dermis (middle layer), and the subcutis (bottom layer). Skin maintains a smooth, youthful appearance with help from the dermis. The dermis contains collagen, elastin, and fibers. Ultraviolet radiation (UV) damages these elements. UV radiation is composed of two types of waves: UVA and UVB. UVB rays are the main culprit behind sunburn. But UVA rays cause the damage we associate with photoaging (wrinkles and spots). UVA rays penetrate deep enough to damage collagen fibers by forming high amounts of elastin and metalloproteinase production. Collagen malfunctions and decomposes, resulting in incorrectly rebuilt skin and wrinkles. This damage repeats with daily UVA exposure. Repeated sun exposure can also cause brown spots, “wisdom” spots, or liver spots—small bits of pigmentation commonly found on places most often exposed to the sun such as the hands, arms, face, and chest. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the best way to combat photoaging is through the proactive application of sunscreen to these and other areas exposed to the sun. It may even help reverse existing damage, and it lowers your risk of developing skin cancers and precancers.
Inflammation occurs when things like UV radiation, irritants (which can be anything from organic matter like certain kinds of plants to laundry detergent or perfume), or allergens attack a skin cell. The cells, in turn, become inflamed and produce cytokines and chemokines, hormones that bind to receptors on cells to produce more inflammatory signaling hormones. This can cause vasodilation, or nerve cell activation, which causes immune cells to migrate into the skin, where they produce more inflammatory hormones, as well as enzymes, free radicals, and chemicals that damage the skin. The result is the amplification of a large inflammatory response that can cause considerable damage to the skin. Inflammation can build up over time and result in numerous health issues. It can cause red, swollen skin, acne breakouts, rosacea, and even skin scarring, which can be costly and difficult to remove. It speeds up the aging process by inhibiting collagen production. Chronic inflammation can even lead to heart disease.