Skin is remarkably resilient, but few people reach the age of 30 without at least a few of the telltale signs of aging. How quickly and to what extent your skin ages depend on genetics and lifestyle. While your genetic blueprint is the luck of the draw, there’s a lot you can do in terms of lifestyle to keep your skin looking its best.
All of the basic tenets of a healthy lifestyle—a balanced, nutrient-rich diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep and minimal stress—will go a long way toward keeping your skin healthy and beautiful. Protecting your skin from excessive sun exposure also is critical, because ultraviolet rays cause free-radical damage that culminates in wrinkling, sagging and age spots. Choose a chemical-free sunscreen based on natural minerals, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and apply it every day, even on overcast days.
Your daily skin-care routine should incorporate regular exfoliation. It’s also important to use moisturizers and serums that contain antioxidants—they are an essential part of an anti-aging skin-care program.
As we age, the turnover of skin cells slows down, resulting in dull, dry skin. You can assist your skin’s natural process of rejuvenation with hydroxy acids. By dissolving the intercellular glue that binds the dry, dead cells on the surface of the skin, alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids (AHA and BHA) gently slough off the topmost layer of skin, uncovering the smoother skin beneath. Using these products a couple of times a week (or even daily) provides immediate gratification in the form of fresher, more radiant skin. Over a period of several months, hydroxy acids can minimize fine lines, fade irregular pigmentation and decrease pore size. Note: Individuals with rosacea or very sensitive skin should not exfoliate without the guidance of a dermatologist.
Side effects of hydroxy acids include increased sun sensitivity and possible skin irritation. To prevent irritation, use hydroxy acid products only two to three times a week initially and gradually work up to daily application. Because removing dead skin cells on the surface of the skin eliminates some of the skin’s natural protection against the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, it’s essential to use sunscreen daily when using AHA and BHA products.
Alpha-hydroxy acids: Natural AHAs are derived from sugar cane (glycolic acid); sour milk (lactic acid); and fruits, such as apples (malic acid), lemons (citric acid) and grapes (tartaric acid). To be effective, AHA skin products should contain between 3 and 10 percent AHA and have a pH level between 3 and 4. (Manufacturers are not required to list pH information on their labels. To test the pH value of a product, use a pH strip. These are available at drugstores.)
Beta-hydroxy acid: The most commonly used BHA in cosmetics is salicylic acid. In natural skin-care products, willow bark (Salix spp.) often is the source of BHA. BHAs differ from AHAs in that they are oil-soluble (AHAs are water-soluble), which enables the acid to penetrate more deeply into the pores. This makes BHA especially helpful for skin types prone to breakouts. BHA is most effective in a concentration of 1 to 2 percent and at a pH of 3 to 4.
Vitamin E protects the skin from ultraviolet light damage and blocks the formation of free radicals.
In the same way that dietary antioxidants protect the body against the damaging effects of free radicals, so do topical antioxidants help protect the skin. Free radicals are created through excessive sunlight exposure, environmental toxins and internal metabolic processes. Left unchecked, free radical damage causes wrinkling, age spots and loss of skin elasticity.
Some of the most effective topical antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, retinol and lipoic acid. You’ll get the best results from using products that offer a combination of antioxidants because they act synergistically to protect and rejuvenate the skin.
Vitamin C: Applied topically, vitamin C is absorbed into the skin and forms a protective shield that holds up even after bathing or exercise to prevent damage from UVA and UVB rays. Regular use of topical vitamin C also has demonstrated the ability to reverse signs of sun damage, including stimulating the body’s production of collagen and lightening hyperpigmentation.
L-ascorbic acid is the most effective form of vitamin C for skin-care products. Products should contain at least 10 percent L-ascorbic acid and a low pH (between 2 and 3.5) to allow penetration into the skin. At this low pH level, vitamin C serums sometimes can cause skin irritation, particularly if you have dry or sensitive skin. To counteract this irritation, use a hydrating mist and a rich moisturizer.
Vitamin E: Because it is fat-soluble, vitamin E has the ability to penetrate cell membranes. It protects the skin from ultraviolet light damage, blocks the formation of free radicals and prevents the oxidation of fats, which is one of the primary causes of cell membrane damage.
Vitamin E actually is a family of eight distinct components (alpha, beta, gamma and delta-tocopherols, and alpha, beta, gamma and delta tocotrienols). Research indicates that using the entire family of tocopherols and tocotrienols provides the most comprehensive antioxidant protection. Palm and rice bran oils are common sources of tocotrienols in natural products. Choose products with natural vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol) instead of synthetic vitamin E (dl-alpha tocopherol). In studies, researchers have found synthetic vitamin E to be far less effective than the natural form.
Retinol: A natural form of vitamin A, retinol helps encourage cellular renewal. Vitamin A is fat-soluble and penetrates into the lower layers of the skin, where it stimulates the production of both collagen and elastin. With regular use, retinol has been proven to improve the skin’s texture and tone, reduce uneven pigmentation and smooth fine lines and wrinkles.
In natural skin-care products, retinol is derived from foods rich in vitamin A, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots and cantaloupe. It’s important to note that Retin A is not the same as retinol. Retin A is a synthetic form of vitamin A that causes extreme sensitivity to the sun, skin irritation and dryness, and potential liver toxicity.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid: Often referred to as the “universal antioxidant,” alpha-lipoic acid is unique in that it is soluble in both water and fat, which gives it access to all parts of cells and tissues. When applied topically, alpha-lipoic acid increases the levels of other antioxidants in the skin and protects against free radical damage. Researchers have demonstrated that the regular use of a topical cream containing alpha-lipoic acid significantly reverses the signs of aging skin. •
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 1,001 Natural Remedies (DK, 2003) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).