How aging affects your skin and what you can do about it
Remember when you were a kid and you were so excited about getting older? When you couldn’t wait to turn 18 or 21? Yeah, it’s a shame that doesn’t last. Aging can be scary, especially when we start to notice it in our faces. But while we haven’t yet figured out a way to halt the march of time, some researchers believe that only 10-15% of skin aging is due to genetics. Which means that when it comes to your skin, you have more power over the aging process than you might think.
Why does skin age?
Collagen degradation is the primary mark of intrinsic aging. Collagen is a protein that binds together the connective tissue in your skin, and as you grow older you have about 1% less of it each year. Hyaluronic acid (HA) also decreases with age. Hyaluronic acid is actually a carbohydrate that can hold a thousand times its weight in water and it’s responsible for plumping and hydrating the skin.
So when your structure-giving collagen and dew-enhancing hyaluronic decline, you get fine lines and wrinkles and dry skin. Intrinsic aging can also lead to neoplasms (growths like moles and skin tags).
There’s nothing we can do about intrinsic aging, so let’s celebrate being living beings existing in time and let it go!
Extrinsic aging, on the other hand, is entirely dependent on environmental factors like nutrition, exercise, stress, smoking, and sun exposure. These are the areas you can influence in order to age the way you want to. Extrinsic aging most often shows itself in deep wrinkles, age spots, rough or leathery texture, and skin cancer.
So how does extrinsic aging work, and what can you do about it?
Sun damage and free radicals
We all know that too much sun damages our skin, and in fact, as much as 80% of extrinsic aging is due to UV radiation. So how do you stop that from happening? It’s not just about staying out of the sun, though that’s a big part of it. There are also steps you can take to help your body process sunlight better.
When skin is exposed to the sun, it produces unstable molecules called free radicals. (These are also generated by cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol, but to a lesser extent.) Free radicals cause oxidative stress, which can lead to cell damage.
What can you do about it?
The best way to combat extrinsic aging is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The most important part of this is protecting your skin from the sun by avoiding exposure and wearing sunscreen. The next step is making sure you’re absorbing lots of antioxidants, which you can address through topical application and from nutrition and supplements.
As well as staying out of the sun during the hottest part of the day and keeping your body covered in the sun, the more diligent you are with sunscreen, the more you reduce the UV radiation your skin receives. Look for a daily sunscreen or moisturizer that’s broad spectrum, with an SPF of at least 30. Don’t skimp on the amount you use, and reapply liberally.
The extent that UV radiation damages your skin isn’t dependent only on how much radiation you get, but also on how your body responds to that radiation. This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants protect skin cells and collagen fibers from free radicals. They’re naturally generated in the body, but our level of antioxidants decreases as we get older. So as you age, you can use some help topping them up.
In your diet, fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs provide the most antioxidants. Spices like ginger and turmeric contain antioxidant compounds that are particularly effective — look for herbal blends that combine it with skin-supporting herbs like sage.
Many foods contain hyaluronic acid or can help your body produce its own. HA-friendly foods include bone broth, citrus fruits, starchy root vegetables, leafy greens, and whole soy foods.
Topical antioxidants can help reduce extrinsic aging. The most effective topicals include vitamins C, B3 or E — because of their small molecular weight, they’re more able to penetrate the skin than other antioxidants.
When assessing natural products, look for ingredients like thyme, rosehips, and parsley, which are rich in vitamin C, and rice bran oil, which contains vitamin B3. Good blends will include additional antioxidant-rich, sun-damage-fighting herbs, like green tea and centella (gotu kola).
Keeping your skin hydrated with hyaluronic acid serums can also help head off premature aging. Natural hyaluronic acid can be derived from bacteria or plants including marshmallow plants, beets, tremella mushroom, or wheat. And while that last source may be alarming to the celiacs or gluten-sensitive among us, the extraction and processing methods remove any gluten proteins.
Combating existing signs of aging
Yes, it’s (somewhat) possible to age in reverse, naturally! While your first course of action should be to prevent collagen degradation from happening in the first place, there are also ways you can repair skin damage that has already occurred. Boosting your collagen levels will repair damaged skin cells, and also keep your skin plump and youthful-looking.
Two great ways to enhance your collagen growth naturally are with vitamin C and with silicon dioxide (a.k.a. silica). Studies show that your body absorbs silicon best through the stomach, so dietary supplements containing silicon are a good option. You can cover all your bases at once with herbal blends that combine silicon-rich horsetail with vitamin C-rich nettle.
Collagen supplements may also help boost skin elasticity, hydration, and collagen density, which typically decrease with age. While Western scientific studies testing collagen supplement efficacy are still in their early stages, in other parts of the world they’re a well-established practice. (In ancient China, women took their collagen supplements in the form of donkey skin.)
Age well, holistically
When it comes to how we treat our bodies, everything is interconnected. This is great news — it means most of the actions you can take to help your skin age well are also beneficial to your general health, mood, and overall well-being.
Collagen doesn’t just help your skin — it also helps maintain and repair your bones, joints, and tendons, and some studies have shown it can reduce arthritis symptoms. Similarly, as well as fighting oxidative stress in skin cells, antioxidants help protect against eye disease, and absorbing them through fruits and vegetables is great for your overall health.
Our skin is our most visible organ, so its appearance tells us a lot about what else is going on in our bodies. It’s important to note changes to your skin, as they can often be warning signs of illness — contact your health care provider if any new moles or lesions pop up.
Good nutrition, rest, avoiding tobacco, and minimizing alcohol are good for your skin, and for the rest of your body, too. So skincare isn’t just about your appearance — paying attention to your skin is an important way to take care of your whole body.