Skin aging, like most physiological phenomena, is the result of many things. “But only about 20 to 30 percent of the process is genetically determined,” says Doris Day, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. “So there’s more you can do to control it than you might have thought.” We know you already wear sunscreen every day to fend off those UV rays—here are some stealthier skin agers and ways to mitigate their effects.
If sugary foods are a staple of your diet, you may want to reconsider what you eat. “When sugar breaks down and enters the bloodstream, it bonds with protein molecules, including those found in collagen and elastin [the fibers that support skin], through a process called glycation,” says Leslie Baumann, a dermatologist in Miami Beach. “This degrades the collagen and elastin, which in turn leads to sagging and wrinkles.”
Preventive measures: Curb your consumption of simple carbohydrates, which include the obvious treats, like soft drinks and candy, but also seemingly innocuous choices, such as honey, white rice, and white bread. These foods are quickly converted into sugar in your body and put your skin on the fast track to glycation. If you need something sweet (and, really, who doesn’t?), Baumann suggests a small square of dark chocolate. The antioxidants in it can protect you from free radicals, those unstable atoms in the atmosphere that latch on to skin and lead to fine lines. Also, increase your intake of vitamin C. “It helps generate collagen,” says Ellen Marmur, a dermatologist in New York City and the author of Simple Skin Beauty ($27, amazon.com). You’ll find vitamin C in papayas, strawberries, broccoli, oranges, and kiwis.
You’re much closer to the sun in a plane than on land, so it stands to reason that solar rays, which can penetrate windows, “are more intense at higher altitudes,” says Marmur. This may explain why pilots and flight attendants have been found to be at an increased risk for melanoma and other skin cancers. Plus, the air up there is notoriously dry—and without moisture, skin, like any living tissue, simply shrivels.
Preventive measures: Drink as much water as you can in flight; avoid alcohol and salty foods, which are dehydrating; and apply a rich moisturizer with SPF 15 or higher 30 minutes before boarding, as sunscreen needs time to be absorbed before it’s effective. And if you’re sitting next to a window, pull down the shade.
Yes, stress really does wear on you. When you’re under intense or chronic pressure, your body increases production of the hormone cortisol, which can damage collagen and elastin and decrease the skin’s ability to repair itself. What’s more, stress can make you tense up and grimace or frown, often without your even realizing it. After a while, these repeated muscle contractions can leave their mark in the form of permanent lines, says Fredric Brandt, a dermatologist in Miami and New York City.
Preventive measures: Get stress and anxiety under control by exercising regularly. Yoga, Tai Chi, and brisk walking have been found to be effective tension tamers, possibly because of the meditative aspect of these activities. (The deep or rhythmic breathing of yoga and Tai Chi probably helps, too, by promoting healthy circulation.) If you don’t have time for hour-long exercise sessions, break up your workouts: Walk the 30 minutes to the office, and download a yoga app (such as Yoga RELAX) so you can do a few gentle poses before bed.
Packing on pounds can make your skin look plumper on the surface, but carrying excess weight can cause your body’s levels of insulin (a hormone made by the pancreas that controls the amount of sugar in your blood) and cortisol to rise, which can break down collagen. “You’ll see increased sagging from putting and keeping on as little as 10 to 15 extra pounds,” says Brandt. In addition, repeatedly gaining and losing weight can take its toll on the skin’s elasticity, leaving behind stretch marks and jowls.
Preventive measures: Aim to keep your weight in the normal range, with a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9. (Go to nhlbisupport.com to calculate yours.)
Midlife Moisture Loss
“With menopause, your body begins to pump out less estrogen,” says Arielle Kauvar, a dermatologist and the director of New York Laser & Skin Care, in New York City. “Since estrogen stimulates oil and collagen production in the skin, your skin may become drier, more wrinkled, and saggy as its levels drop.”
Preventive measures: Your best inexpensive bet may be to “troubleshoot by moisturizing heavily,” says Marmur. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can offset some of these effects, but it can take time to find the exact combination of hormones that your body responds to. For more instant results, you might consider dermal fillers, which are injected into the skin to fill in wrinkles and plump up sagging areas. Consult your dermatologist for options.
Lack of Sleep
“Your skin has a chance to repair itself overnight,” says Mary P. Lupo, a clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University, in New Orleans. “Without enough deep sleep, the kind you can’t be roused from easily, the skin can’t properly undo daily damage.” Also, sleep deprivation puts your body into stress mode, causing it to release more stress hormones (see Untamed Tension).
Preventive measures: Shoot for seven to eight hours of sleep a night. It takes discipline, but start by shutting off all electronic devices a half hour before bed so the stimulation doesn’t keep you up. Another strategy: Try to sleep on your back. “If you usually sleep with your face smushed into your pillow,” says Lupo, “it will look creased faster.”
Depression doesn’t show up only in your demeanor—it may also show up on your face. Over time, a frown (ironically, just like a smile or a squint) can become permanently etched into the skin. Depression is also associated with elevated cortisol levels, which can weaken supportive collagen fibers, as well as with “a decrease in growth-hormone synthesis, which inhibits the ability of the skin to repair itself at night,” says Brandt. What’s more, when people are depressed, they may not take care of themselves (or their complexions) the way they should.
Preventive measures: To combat depression, exercise regularly, enter counseling if necessary, and talk to your doctor about whether you would benefit from an antidepressant. Interestingly, reducing wrinkles with a cosmetic treatment like Botox might improve symptoms of depression. Sure, it could be that if you look better you feel better, but a study conducted at Cardiff University, in the United Kingdom, found a more likely explanation: When people had their frown lines treated with Botox, the paralysis of those facial muscles prevented them from transmitting negative-mood signals to the brain, which correlated with a lifting of the spirits.
In the skin-aging equation, regular moderate exercise is a plus, since it reduces stress. But if you frequently run or bicycle long distances, you are not only exposing yourself to lots of UV light but also “jolting, and possibly damaging, the support structure of the skin,” says Brandt.
Preventive measures: Do not consider this a license to slack off! Brandt emphasizes that premature skin aging is generally an issue for extreme athletes only. That said, the use of lots of sunscreen and a great moisturizer can go a long way toward counteracting the relentless pull of gravity.
Aging by the Decades
A look at your skin through the years—and advice on what to use to keep it healthy.
In your 30s: You may start to see spotty pigmentation and fine lines near your eyes where the skin creases most readily, particularly if you’re a sun worshipper. Try Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Plump Perfect Ultra Lift and Firm Eye Cream SPF 15 ($52, elizabetharden.com) to even and smooth skin anywhere.
In your 40s: Tiny lines begin to appear around the eyes and the forehead, and crow’s-feet start to set in. Broken capillaries or brown spots may show up on the cheeks, and pores can look larger, says Lisa Donofrio, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine. Use Kiehl’s Photo-Age Corrector High-Potency Spot Treatment ($50, kiehls.com) to do away with discoloration.
In your 50s: Deep forehead furrows become more prominent, and smile lines crop up. Blotchiness on the cheeks worsens. And menopause can make skin drier. Try Clinique Repairwear Laser Focus Wrinkle & UV Damage Corrector ($47.50, clinique.com) to address dark patches as well as dryness.
In your 60s: The face loses volume and sags. Fine lines become more pronounced, and those who have had lots of sun exposure typically get brown patches that may be raised and rough, notes dermatologist Leslie Baumann. Try Bobbi Brown Hydrating Intense Night Cream ($60, bobbibrowncosmetics.com), which seals moisture in skin for a smooth, lifted look.