Let’s face it: getting old doesn’t exactly do wonders for your appearance.
Scientists haven’t figured out how to turn back the clock just yet, but it’s not all bad news.
“Your genetics do play a part, although we don’t know everything about genetics, but certainly environmental issues can contribute to the ageing process and specifically to the ageing process of the skin,” says Dr Frank R Jones, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
Ergo, there is a lot you can do to make sure your skin doesn’t age faster than the rest of your body.
The usual suspects
“It’s part of the ageing process that you lose the elasticity in your collagen fibres, but sun exposure, smoking and excess alcohol consumption accelerate that process,” says Dr Jones.
Sunlight is made up of UVA and UVB rays but it’s type A that’s responsible for skin ageing, says cosmetic dermatologist Dr Michelle Hunt from Inner Sydney Dermatology.
“UVA rays penetrate more deeply so it’s the main cause of premature ageing,” she says. “It breaks down the collagen and elastin, which are the support structures in the skin, so you get mottled pigmentation, fine lines, wrinkles, loss of elasticity and a leathery look.”
“Physical things like when people purse their lips to inhale or squint to keep the smoke out of their eyes use muscles that create smokers’ lines,” says Dr Hunt.
“There is also some evidence that tobacco and the chemicals in cigarettes can constrict blood vessels, which deprives the skin of oxygen and nutrients so things don’t heal properly and your skin doesn’t look as healthy and supple.”
Insufficient shut-eye is also associated with old-looking skin – and the effects can be more than just bags under the eyes.
“When we’re sleeping the body goes into repair mode and that includes the skin cells,” says Dr Hunt. “If you’re not getting enough sleep the body doesn’t have enough repair time.”
An emerging body of research is investigating the link between advanced glycation end-products – or, ironically, ‘AGEs’ – and skin ageing.
AGEs are compounds that have been implicated in diabetes, heart disease and age-related diseases. Many animal-based foods high in protein and fat are high in AGEs and prone to new AGE formation during cooking. Barbequed meat and grilled chicken are common culprits.
“AGEs can bind to collagen in the skin and they increase the breakdown of it,” says Dr Hunt.
It’s thought that chronic stress decreases our supply of the protective casings – or ‘telomeres’ – at the end of DNA strands. This causes skin cells to die or become pro-inflammatory, which sets the ageing process in motion.
“There’s thought to be an optimal telomere length and if it gets shorter, you’re more prone to ageing, inflammation and cancer,” says Dr Hunt. “Stress has been shown to shorten telomere length.”
Fortunately, it’s never too late to change your ways.
“With smoking, recovery for organs including the skin is quite quick when you stop,” says Dr Hunt.
“With sun damage part of it is reversible and there are various creams that we can use that stimulate collagen production in the skin such as vitamin A-based creams, retinol and AHAs.”
Swapping charred sausages on the barbie for poached chicken or steamed fish and chowing down on plant-based foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains will help keep your skin firm.