The skin changes that are observed from the silky smoothness of a baby’s bottom to the crinkly wrinkles of an 80-year-old are due to a multitude of factors, including intrinsic aging, sun exposure, other environmental factors (wind, dry air), toxin exposure (pollution, cigarette smoking), stress and hormones. Because your skin changes as you age, your skin care products and habits should change, too. Here’s a look at your skin through the ages:
Infancy and Childhood
By and large, children’s skin is the healthiest skin professionals see. But this is also the time when the greatest damage – albeit unseen- may occur. As such, it is extremely important to protect children from the sun with appropriate sun-blocking hats, clothing and sunscreen. In addition, exposure to the sun should be limited during its most intense hours (usually 10am – 2pm in most parts of the country).
As levels of reproductive hormones surge, oil production increases and acne results. A variety of over-the-counter and prescription products can keep pimples, blackheads, and cysts at bay. A more serious problem, particularly in teenage girls, is their quest for the perfect tan. Only 4 in 10 adolescent girls wear sunscreen and only one- third report limiting their sun exposure. Indoor tanning booths are also extremely popular, with nearly 1 in 4 girls reporting their regular use. Research has shown that not only is indoor tanning unsafe (associated with an increased risk of skin cancer in this age group), but it is also addictive.
Twenties and 30s
Skin still glows, but the aging process is beginning to show. Little by little, the skin begins losing collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid (the essential building blocks of the skin). Skin tone and texture is affected, necessitating the regular daily use of sunscreen and topical antioxidants.
Due to the surge in hormones (as well as prior sun damage), many pregnant women develop hyperpigmentation, an overproduction of pigment that produces darks spots. Some develop melasma (or chloasma)- dark spots on the face often referred to as the “mask of pregnancy”. As hormone levels drop after pregnancy, these dark spots often fade, but those with excessive sun damage may have long-standing skin blotchiness that will require treatment.
In addition to the pigmentary changes, many pregnant women also develop stretch marks (or striae). This is due to excessive stretching of the skin during rapid weight gains. The best way to prevent them from occurring is to avoid rapid weight gain because no topical creams have been found to prevent their occurrence. Should eventual treatment be necessary, a dermatologist should be consulted for topical retinoic acid or laser therapy.
Perimenopause and Menopause
In addition to the age- and sun-related skin changes outlined above, women often notice larger pores and wrinkles due to collagen breakdown and hormonal changes. Estrogen replacement will lead to improvement in skin moisture and smoothness. Skin becomes more fragile and thin with advancing age, with easy bruising and itching. Other skin changes, including scaly bumps (keratoses) and patches are common. While most skin growths are harmless age spots, some may be precursors to skin cancer and should be evaluated by a dermatologist in order to determine whether treatment is necessary.
The key to healthy skin is dependent on a number of variables:
There are limited studies that demonstrate certain individual foods being beneficial to healthy skin; however, one’s overall diet (as well as body weight) matters. For instance, if you’re overweight and/or eat a diet high in processed foods or sugar (including white bread, cookies, packaged dinners) and low in fiber and fresh fruits/vegetables, you have a higher risk of developing insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes. In this condition, insulin (the hormone that unlocks the cell so glucose- or fuel- can get in) doesn’t work very well.
Consequently, the glucose (sugar) builds up in your bloodstream instead of going into the cells. The excess glucose damages the skin because it reacts with the collagen and other proteins that make the skin resilient. This reaction creates harmful waste products called advanced glycosylation endproducts (AGEs), which are free radicals. Your collagen fibers stiffen and your skin loses elasticity which leads to wrinkling, sagging, and damage from ultraviolet light. Eating a nutritious diet (with fruits, vegetables and fish) will protect your skin from aging, while eating a fat or sugar-laden diet (high-glycemic foods such as soft drinks, pastries, potatoes) will increase the likelihood of skin wrinkling.
The glow that your skin exhibits after exercise is more than perspiration…exercise promotes production of sebum (or oil), your skin’s natural moisturizer, and enhances blood flow to the skin. The blood carries oxygen and valuable nutrients that help maintain skin heath. In addition, regular physical activity helps you maintain a healthy weight and protects against insulin resistance as well as being an excellent stress reliever.
The stress in your life often shows on your face (and skin). Whether emotional or physical, stress has been found to trigger skin inflammation and worsen such conditions as psoriasis, eczema, acne and rosacea. The strong mind-body connection is responsible for measurable changes in your immune system which can have negative effects on your skin. Relaxation techniques, biofeedback and breathing training can help to reduce stress (as can regular exercise described above).
Air pollution, smoking, dry re-circulated airplane air, and sun exposure all affect the skin negatively by increasing the production of free radicals and stripping antioxidants from the skin. Smoking constricts blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the skin and depleting levels of valuable antioxidant vitamins (eg, vitamin A) that lead to damage to the skin’s elastic fibers. Ultraviolet light from the sun not only damages elastin and collagen, leading to the formation of wrinkles, but is responsible for the fact that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.