How Skin Ages—And What You Can Do About It
There’s no way to get around the changes—the lines, spots, etc.—that happen to skin as you age. These transitions are natural and genetically predetermined, simply part of being a living thing. But consider that the vast majority of visible skin aging is due to UV exposure (one study clocked a whopping 80%); that should give you an idea of how habits play a significant role. Primarily, this indicates the need for proper sun protection. “You can do everything else right, but if you are continually exposed to the sun, your skin can't maintain its optimal health,” explains Medford, Oregon dermatologist Laurel Geraghty, M.D. There are other reasonable steps you can take as well, not to magically circumvent the process—but to simply have better skin in spite of it.
The natural production of collagen and elastin, protein fibers in your skin that give it firmness and elasticity, starts slowing in your twenties. Without their bouncy, structural support, says Geraghty, skin starts to show lines and creases. Other factors hasten this process, and actually destroy these proteins: UVA rays from the sun penetrate deep within skin and free radicals (unpaired electrons) from various environmental sources, including the sun, pollution, and cigarette smoke, wreak inflammatory chaos.
To preserve what you’ve got, wear a broad-spectrum (meaning it protects from UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen daily along with a topical antioxidant such as green tea or vitamin C. They work synergistically—a sunscreen made with non-nano zinc oxide, your cleanest SPF option, sits on top of the skin and blocks UVA and UVB rays from entering; antioxidants, which Geraghty refers to as “an insurance policy for your skin,” neutralize free radicals.
In addition, there are treatments that can help kickstart your dwindling collagen production. Retinoids, synthetic derivatives of vitamin A, are the most research-supported option for this in terms of their efficaciousness. But they aren’t perfect—they can be incredibly irritating, particularly for sensitive types, and it’s difficult to find a clean version. Most are either preserved with a potential toxin like BHT or aren’t preserved effectively, which is just as problematic. Luckily, there are alternatives—plenty of natural ingredients, many rich in the vitamin A that powers retinoids in the first place, including rosehip seed oil and algae extract, demonstrate regenerating effects on skin. There are also peptides, amino acid chains that have long been touted for their science-backed ability to stimulate collagen synthesis, says Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale: “I recommend them all the time to patients who can’t tolerate retinoids or are averse to them for whatever reason.”
These dark spots happen when the skin’s pigment producing cells, melanocytes, simply churn out too much melanin. There are a few different causes (including hormone changes during pregnancy), but one significant one is, again, free radical exposure. When you’re young, these spots fade away more easily, but over time, as skin’s turnover process wanes, the discoloration tends to hang around.
In the same way that antioxidants work with SPF to neutralize free radicals, preventing lines and wrinkles, they do the same when it comes to staving off spots. Even better, they can actually help reverse the discoloration by putting a roadblock at some point in the pigmentation process. Quercetin, found in apple peel, has been shown to inhibit the pigment-producing enzyme tyrosinase, curbing the overproduction of melanin. And while it hasn’t been proven exactly how vitamin C—the preeminent antioxidant if there were one—functions to be such an effective brightener, researchers believe it also somehow interferes with tyrosinase.
There’s another ingredient to consider when looking to avoid hyperpigmentation—iron oxide. Frequently found in makeup and sunscreen, research shows that it “excels at blocking the visible light rays that stem from electronics and indoor lighting and have been linked with hyperpigmentation,” says Gohara.
Dryness and Dullness
The skin barrier, the first line of defense between you and the outside world, takes a battering over time. As it weakens, “it becomes harder for skin to hold onto moisture,” says Geraghty. Additionally, your own production of natural moisturizers slumps anyway, starting in your 30s. This includes lipids like ceramides and essential fatty acids, which are like the “glue that holds the skin barrier together,” notes Geraghty, and hyaluronic acid, a sugar that binds water in skin. This creates a double whammy of dehydration. At the same time, cellular turnover, the process by which skin naturally replaces dead skin cells with new ones, declines, leaving you with a duller skin surface.
Simply replace what’s missing to build a stronger, more moisturized barrier. Scan ingredient lists for ceramides and for essential fatty acids—the latter have many plant sources, including marula, chia, kiwi, and hemp seed oils. Hyaluronic acid, particularly the low molecular weight variety, can dive deep into skin and “absorb water like a sponge,” says Gohara, keeping skin hydrated.
Exfoliating can help compensate for the slower cell turnover—but doing so gently is crucial, because you don’t want to aggravate the barrier you’re working hard to fortify. Ideally, do this no more than twice a week, says Gohara. Most dermatologists prefer alpha hydroxy acids over physical exfoliators like scrubs. “A lot of people can use scrubs safely and effectively,” emphasizes Geraghty. But, she adds, "I have also seen a lot of people go to town and scratch and traumatize their skin with them.” Lactic, a type of alpha hydroxy acid derived from plants like sugar cane and beets, not only sloughs away dead skin cells to counter dullness, studies demonstrate that it tackles virtually every other sign of aging as well. It stimulates collagen, reduces hyperpigmentation, and prompts ceramide production—a multitasking skin wonder.