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They say beauty is pain, but when was the last time you applied mercury or arsenic to your skin to make it look younger? Victorian women used to take the most extreme measures to fight wrinkles, including applying poisonous substances like these to their skin. The effectiveness of these interventions is doubtful. Their role in the deaths of countless women over the years, however, is in no doubt at all.
While we’ve come a long way since then, humans are still searching for ways to look younger. Aging is a natural process. No one really needs to try to look younger. But if you want advice on proven interventions you can take, read on.
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What makes someone look older or younger?
Have you ever run into someone you haven’t seen in over a decade and noticed how much older that person looks? What is it that makes someone look older, exactly? In many cases, it’s the appearance of their skin.
Throughout our lives, our bodies build up molecules with the unwieldy name of reactive oxygen species (ROS). This build-up results in oxidative stress, which accumulates over time. Oxidative stress affects the entire body (organs, joints, muscles, etc.), but we see it most on the skin (Clatici, 2017).
While you can’t turn back the hands of time and undo oxidative stress, there are a number of external factors that can speed up or slow down this process.
Tanning or sunbathing to make the skin look younger is one of the great myths that came out of the 20th century. Exposure to ultraviolet rays (specifically, UVA and UVB) leads to changes in the skin over time that make you look older. It makes the skin look rougher and causes discoloration and creases in the skin. Some researchers estimate that sun exposure accounts for 80% of facial aging (Clatici, 2017).
You probably know that eating a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates is generally not good for you, but you might not know that it can also have a major effect on skin aging.
One study looked at perceived age versus actual age in people with low, medium, and high blood glucose levels (that’s the amount of sugar in the blood, which is highly correlated with diet). They found that perceived age went up by almost half a year for every 1mmol/L of blood glucose. That means, the higher your blood glucose levels, the older you’ll likely look (Noordam, 2013).
One theory for this effect is that a high sugar diet impacts our collagen, elastic fibers, and fibronectin—all of which contribute to how young or old our skin looks (Clatici, 2017).
Next to sunbathing or sitting in a tanning bed, smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your skin (not to mention your health in general). Smokers have higher rates of wrinkling, especially around the mouth and eye area. Repetitive puckering of the mouth and squinting of the eyes are likely culprits, but there are other factors, as well. Cigarettes contain thousands of toxins, many of which can negatively affect the skin. Smoking also decreases the skin’s moisture levels, which can cause faster skin aging (Clatici, 2017).
We know that stress plays a big role in heart disease and other chronic illnesses, but the link to aging is not very clear at this point. The theory is that stress activates certain systems (specifically, the autonomic nervous system, renin-angiotensin system, and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal system) involved in DNA damage, inflammation, and oxidative stress. When those things are kicked up, aging is accelerated. Or, at least, that’s the theory (Clatici, 2017).
How to relieve stress: proven tips and techniques
Ah, sleep. Couldn’t we all use more of that? It turns out poor sleep quality isn’t just a drag; it can also make the skin look older. People who experience sleep deprivation are more likely to have fine lines, discoloration of the skin, and lower levels of elasticity in the skin (Clatici, 2017).
Skincare is the factor people tend to put the most emphasis on. And while it’s important to have a good skincare regimen, the other factors we’ve mentioned thus far are probably more crucial in avoiding often irreversible damage to the skin. We’ll go over some proven skincare ingredients in the next section, but the most important product to protect your skin is sunscreen (Clatici, 2017).
6 ways to make yourself look younger
Many so-called anti-aging products out there are unproven and unnecessarily expensive, but there are some interventions with good evidence (Huang, 2007). Now that we know what can cause premature aging, let’s look at what interventions work best for fighting the signs of aging.
1. Limit sun exposure
We’ve seen just how damaging prolonged sun exposure can be for the skin. At the same time, there are many health benefits from getting outside regularly (Nieuwenhuijsen, 2014). So, how can you balance those benefits and drawbacks?
Wearing sunscreen is a key part of protecting yourself when you go outside. Just make sure to reapply regularly (Randhawa, 2016). Sunscreen should have a sun protective factor (SPF) of 15 or higher (Gabros, 2020). There’s also good evidence that wearing sun hats or UV-protective clothing can be just as effective (if not more so) than sunscreen for avoiding damage from UV rays (Linos, 2011).
2. Improve your diet
If you eat a diet that’s high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, or if you drink a lot of alcohol, making some changes to your diet can have a big impact. You don’t need to make big, sweeping changes overnight—we don’t recommend that!— but small improvements to your diet add up over time (Cao, 2020). Here are some important tips:
- Stay hydrated! Drinking plenty of water is a key part of keeping the skin moisturized and looking young.
- Try to eat foods that are high in nutrients, like fruits and vegetables.
- Limit how much sugar you eat in a day. The latest guidelines from the USDA recommend getting no more than 10% of your daily calories from added sugars (USDA, 2020).
Certain supplements may also be worth adding to your diet, such as omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can protect the skin cells. Some probiotics may be useful, too. Some people recommend zinc or amino acids, but those do not have strong evidence for their effects on the skin (Cao, 2020).
There’s also good evidence that caloric restriction and intermittent fasting can have good effects on the aging process, which generally carries over to the skin (de Cabo, 2014).
15 foods to skip if you want to slice your sugar intake
3. Quit smoking
We probably don’t need to convince you that quitting smoking is a good idea, but that doesn’t make it any easier to do. It’s estimated that 9 out of 10 people who try to quit on their own are unsuccessful (Komiyama, 2017). But there are some interventions that can help, namely (Sealock, 2020):
- Counseling for smoking cessation
- Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), such as the nicotine patch or gum
- Bupropion (also known by its brand name, Wellbutrin; see Important Safety Information)
- Varenicline (Chantix)
- Combination of counseling and pharmacological interventions (this is what works best)
4. Manage stress
While we don’t yet have a clear link between stress and the outward appearance of aging, there’s good reason to believe there’s a relationship between the two (Lee, 2020). And even if it doesn’t have a direct impact on your skin, getting your stress under control is probably not a bad thing anyway.
The stress management technique with the most significant evidence behind it is something called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). MBSR involves a combination of breathing exercises, meditation, and gentle exercise (Worthen, 2020).
5. Get more sleep
Getting more hours of sleep might sound like an impossibility, but it’s worth putting some effort into improving your sleep quality. One study showed that people classified as “good sleepers” showed significantly less skin aging than those classified as “poor sleepers” (Oyetakin-White, 2015). We’re all familiar with that sleep-deprived look—dark circles around the eyes, puffiness, drooping eyelids, crow’s feet, pale skin. When you consistently get poor sleep, that adds up over time (Clatici, 2017).
So what can you do to improve your sleep? Well, one possibility is to try taking melatonin before bed. Melatonin is a molecule that not only helps with sleep quality but can also improve the skin in a number of ways. It seems to protect against damage caused by UV-radiation and free radicals. It can also repair damaged mitochondria (commonly called the “powerhouse of the cell”), along with several other mechanisms (Rusanova, 2019).
6. Use a proven skincare regimen
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Daily sunscreen is the most important part of your skincare regimen to prevent those UV-related signs of aging. One study, comparing daily sunscreen users with occasional sunscreen users, really hammers this home. By the end of 4.5 years, the daily sunscreen users showed 24% less visible skin aging than those who wore sunscreen only occasionally (Hughes, 2013).
Your dermatologist may also recommend adding retinoids to your skincare regimen, which is a broad category of medications related to vitamin A. There’s good evidence that retinoids can improve the appearance of the skin, and they’re FDA-approved as anti-wrinkle agents. Some are available over-the-counter, while others require a prescription. Here are some common examples of retinoids (Zasada, 2019):
You can also add topical vitamin C, vitamin B3, and vitamin E, which are all powerful antioxidants that are able to penetrate the skin. When used together, they can improve collagen production, skin elasticity, pigmentation, and skin texture (Ganceviciene, 2012).
Finally, hydrating the skin is key. A good moisturizer can make the skin smoother, reduce fine lines, and act as a barrier against toxins. There are many moisturizing lotions available to hydrate the skin, but there’s no need to spend a lot of money on the fanciest option (Nolan, 2012).
Tretinoin: uses, benefits, results
Prevention is key
Our society puts a lot of emphasis on trying to look younger when simple preventative measures are the most effective things you can do. It’s important to remember that aging is a natural process, and you can’t avoid it completely, but taking these key steps to improve your health and wellness can make a big impact on how your skin looks.
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