Americans live in a culture that glorifies youth. They’re surrounded by images of ideal, ageless beauty that are impossible standards to meet. That’s one of the reasons they spent an estimated $14.2 billion on anti-aging products in 2020.
Still, without getting caught up in a narcissistic attempt to stay young forever, there are some simple steps you can take to look great for your age, whatever that may be. And one of the best areas to concentrate on is your skin. In a search for no-nonsense advice, we asked several respected dermatologists to share their secrets on how to keep our skin looking healthy and youthful.
But first, a little background on how skin ages in the first place. Skin is the largest organ in the human body, and it’s vulnerable to damage from many directions, says Lisa M. Donofrio, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine. Over time, smoking cigarettes and exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can create wrinkles; pollution can clog pores. Environmental poisons set off chemical reactions that produce free radicals — unstable, unattached oxygen molecules that can damage skin membranes, proteins, and DNA.
Internally, as a normal byproduct of metabolism, skin cells create still more free radicals. When we’re younger, these free radicals are removed by antioxidants in the skin, which are in shorter supply as the years pass. Collagen and elastin — the skin’s support fibers — break down. Cell turnover slows. The skin’s outer cells don’t slough off as easily, so skin isn’t renewed as efficiently.
What’s more, the skin doesn’t retain as much moisture as it once did. Cells leak moisture when the glue that holds cell membranes together begins to degenerate, explains Donofrio. Sweat and oil glands also produce less moisture. Facial bones become less dense and fat deposits under the skin shrink, causing the skin to lose elasticity. And, as women enter their late 40s and 50s, the decrease in the hormone estrogen makes skin thinner, because it is no longer able to hold as much water.
Genes also play a role in how your skin ages. The rate at which women lose collagen, elastin, and moisture varies among individuals: Some women may have firm skin into their 60s. But when it comes to your skin, your lifestyle can make a difference as well.
Self-help for skin
Of course, many women are confused or simply overwhelmed when it comes to making sound decisions about skincare. How could they not be? Bombarded with seductive advertisements and a bewildering array of new and expensive skincare products, it’s a wonder that any woman can feel confident in this arena. So, we asked the experts, what can you reasonably do — without resorting to expensive or invasive cosmetic procedures — to keep your skin’s healthy glow?
For starters, they said, it’s never too early to begin protecting your skin, even when there’s not a blemish or wrinkle in sight. Young women in their teens and 20s can begin a lifetime of healthy habits — such as not smoking — that can slow down the skin’s aging process.
Here are the most important steps to take:
- Use sunscreen and protective clothing. By far the most important measure you can take to save your skin is to avoid excessive exposure to the sun. “Basically, we consider the science of aging all sun-related,” says Arielle N.B. Kauvar, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. “If no one was ever exposed to the sun, we wouldn’t have wrinkles, brown spots, red blotches — even sagging is accelerated. It’s all from the sun. The most important thing anyone can do for skin — infant, child, woman, man — is sunscreen.”
- To protect your skin, you should use a hat and other protective clothing as well as sunscreen. Seek out shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., use umbrellas on the beach, and avoid tanning parlors.
- Stop smoking. Smoking can damage the skin’s connective tissue and impair its healing process by preventing oxygen from getting to your blood vessels and skin. What this translates into is the classic “smoker’s face” — one etched by countless fine wrinkles. Even if you’ve been smoking for years, though, stopping means that your skin will probably sustain less damage.
- Get some sleep. Getting adequate rest means you don’t look like you have bags under your eyes. This is also one way to alleviate stress, which is thought to contribute to damage from free radicals.
- Avoid dehydration. Drink at least eight glasses of water daily, and don’t drink excessive amounts of coffee, which can make your body lose water. Although there are no studies that say it will help your skin, getting enough water may help your body remove toxins and maintain good circulation.
- Watch your diet. Avoid loading up on white sugar or processed food, and don’t drink too much alcohol (the federal government recommends that women have no more than one drink a day). It’s also important to try to maintain a healthy weight throughout your life. “Yo-yo” dieters whose weight fluctuates dramatically can speed the aging process, as well as end up with sagging skin.
Why sun worship is damaging
“Sun is the one thing that really ages your skin significantly, really damages your skin,” says Susan Goodlerner, MD, a former clinical assistant professor of dermatology at UCLA who’s now practicing at the California Skin Institute in Torrance, California. “Women in their 50s who’ve been careful about sun protection look much younger than women who have not.”
We get half our lifetime’s worth of sun exposure before the age of 20 (because children spend so much time outdoors). If you can be the sensible one who refuses to sunbathe to achieve that optimal, in-vogue tan, your skin will thank you for it later. You will also reduce the risk of getting skin cancer.