As your body’s largest organ, your skin is a window into what’s going on in the rest of your body.
For instance, you’ve likely noticed firsthand that when you’re in good health, skin tends to look great. It’s bright, glowing, soft, and plump. It also does a better job of keeping irritants and germs out, and water (and everything else!) in.
But even if you’re healthy, your skin will age over time, just like every other organ. Skin cells’ mitochondria — the power plants of cells — eventually start to burn out, causing your 19 million or so skin cells to not turn over as rapidly. The result?
- Older, damaged, and weak cells stick around longer.
- Blood (and the oxygen and nutrients in blood) may not flow as easily to skin.
- Skin may not heal or protect itself as well.
- Skin can be more sensitive to irritants and infection.
- Collagen — the fibrous protein that serves as skin’s support structure or scaffolding — gets weaker and isn’t replaced as readily, which contributes to wrinkles and sagging.
While you can’t stop this process entirely, it’s entirely up to you when and how quickly and noticeably these changes occur, says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan. That’s because external factors — which include diet, lifestyle, and exposure to the sun and certain environmental toxins, all of which you can mostly control — have a huge impact on the aging process of skin.
When you don’t intercede, those external factors can accelerate the rate and degree to which skin wrinkles or sags or shows other signs of aging or damage. On the flip side, the more you take action to protect skin from external age accelerators, the better it will look and function as the years march on. Even better, most of the ways that help slow down aging of the skin also help slow aging of your body.
Here, seven of the most important steps you can take to slow or even reverse skin aging, and how they specifically benefit skin and help it look its healthy best, no matter your age.
1. Be Smart About Sun Exposure
The sun is a universal symbol of happiness, warmth, and joy, but it’s got a dark side: Ultraviolet light will damage skin and speed skin aging more than just about anything else. In fact, UV light exposure may be responsible for up to 80% of skin’s visible signs of aging, according to a study in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigative Dermatology.
To get to that number, researchers analyzed the skin of two groups of women ages 30 to 78: those who were “sun-seekers,” and those who avoided the sun. They concluded that UV light played a significant role in premature signs of aging like pigmentation and wrinkles.
How exactly does UV light damage skin? Mainly by generating free radicals and stoking inflammation, Dr. Rawls explains. When skin is exposed to UV light, it triggers the formation of free radicals, which are unstable, reactive molecules that rob other molecules of electrons. That then creates inflammation that damages DNA.
Once DNA is damaged, it can’t reproduce healthy, normal skin cells, which affects both collagen and elastin production, as well as melanocytes, the cells that produce skin pigment. That’s one reason uneven skin tone and pigmentation spots are common signs of aging, because damaged melanocytes produce melanin — a dark pigment in skin — willy-nilly.
Collagen and elastin, meanwhile, are skin’s main support structures. When healthy, they’re springy and flexible. For example, if you make an expression, like furrowing your brow, skin with healthy collagen and elastin may crease temporarily but it will bounce back when you relax your face.
However, if collagen and elastin are weak and damaged from free radicals and inflammation, skin doesn’t bounce back as readily, and those expressions or movements have a more lasting effect, otherwise known as wrinkles and sagging. Think of it like repeatedly folding a piece of paper versus a piece of foam: Over time, the paper folds become prominent and a permanent part of the paper, while the foam keeps springing back.
The most effective way to protect skin, of course, is by avoiding the sun entirely. But, unless you’re willing to be a vampire, that’s not quite realistic. Instead, here’s a more realistic approach:
- Try to avoid being outside for extended periods when the sun’s strength is at its peak, between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm.
- Stay in the shade when you are outside.
- Wear UV-protective clothing and hats, choosing fabrics with a UPF rating (which stands for “ultraviolet protection factor”).
- Always wear sunscreen, and reapply at least every two hours.
When choosing a sunscreen, look for mineral-based topical products, which contain ultrafine particles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These natural minerals sit on the surface of skin and physically block UV rays from penetrating skin and doing damage. (Chemical blockers, on the other hand, are absorbed into skin and filter the sun’s rays.)
Today’s mineral-based lotions and sprays are formulated to be transparent and lightweight, not thick, goopy, and white like the lotions from years ago. Dr. Rawls suggests consulting the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) guide to safe sunscreens for more.
2. Eat Your SPF
“I always tell people, ‘Yes, wear sunscreen, but also protect yourself from the inside out, too,’” Dr. Rawls says. “Polyphenols and other antioxidants from richly colored vegetables and fruit like kale, carrots, and berries, as well as green tea, are highly protective of collagen.”
These antioxidants work by readily donating electrons to free radicals, which neutralizes them before they can damage skin, Dr. Rawls says. Some of the best plant-based antioxidant nutrients for skin include vitamins C and E, resveratrol, and carotenoids like lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene.
And the more you eat, the better. For example, women who had the highest intakes of vitamin C and linoleic acid, the type of fat found in many nuts and seeds, had fewer wrinkles compared to those with lower intakes, according to a study in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Another study analyzed the diets and skin of elderly adults living in Australia. It found that those who ate more vegetables, legumes, and olive oil had less sun-damaged skin compared to those who ate more meat, dairy, and butter.
Foods rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids like fatty fish as well as omega-3 supplements like fish oil and krill oil have also been shown to protect skin from the harmful effects of the sun, according to a review in Marine Drugs. Omega-3s help promote skin healing and keep skin barrier strong, as well, the study found.
3. Harness the Naturally Protective Power of Herbs
Most herbs have powerful antioxidant properties because they, too, must protect themselves from environmental damage. Those benefits transfer to us when consumed, and some are particularly potent for skin.
“French maritime pine bark extract in particular is effective for protecting the skin because of its polyphenols,” Dr. Rawls says. Indeed, women with mild to moderate photoaging (meaning wrinkles, dryness, and pigmentation) who took extracts of the pine bark for 12 weeks saw improvements to their skin, especially pigmentation, according to a study in Clinical Interventions in Aging. Another study in animals found that French maritime pine bark extract protected against the formation of wrinkles and pigmentation as well as blood vessel changes in skin exposed to UV radiation.
Japanese knotweed, which is high in resveratrol, is another skin superstar thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Research suggests it may help protect against the effects of sunburn and other UV-induced skin damage.
4. Swear Off Refined Carbs and Sugary Foods and Drinks
Delicious as they may be, candy, soda, squishy white breads, pasta, and pastries all flood your system with glucose. “Glucose is what I call a collagen cruncher,” Dr. Rawls says. “It’s a highly reactive, organized, and complex molecule that wreaks havoc on the structural proteins in your body.” And skin’s main components are two such proteins: collagen and elastin.
Excess glucose in your blood links up with amino acids in collagen and elastin, producing what are known as advanced glycation endproducts (ironically abbreviated as AGEs). And AGEs make your tissues stiff and weak, meaning that they’re less resistant to the mechanical stress of your facial expressions — and they’re slower to heal and replenish themselves, according a report in the journal Skin Therapy Letter. Too much glucose also increases inflammation, which further damages and weakens collagen, Dr. Rawls says.
Consider the results of a recent study published in the journal Age: Researchers asked observers to guess the ages of a number of different people based on facial photographs. Those with higher levels of blood glucose were rated as looking older than those with normal levels. Consider all of this more motivation to quit sugar and minimize carbohydrate intake in favor of eating more vegetables and fruits.
5. Stay Active to Feel and Look Younger
Exercise is a must for managing stress, reducing inflammation, and boosting blood flow, all of which can slow the aging process of skin and of your body as a whole. But now researchers have zeroed in on one specific and significant way sweating keeps skin young.
Physical activity was shown to trigger the release of a specialized protein called IL-15, according to a series of studies published in the journal Cell. And IL-15 seems to regulate mitochondrial function in skin and act a bit like a shot from the fountain of youth.
In one trial, scientists examined skin from non-sun-exposed areas in people ages 20 to 84. (They choose areas not exposed to sun because UV exposure would be a huge variable they’d be unable to account for.)
The researchers found that those who were over age 40 and who exercised regularly had skin that, under the microscope, more closely resembled the skin of 20- and 30-year-olds. The top layer wasn’t as thick and dry, which often happens with age, while the middle layer (the dermis) was thicker and more elastic.
Even better, when people over 65 who were previously sedentary began exercising moderately just twice a week, their skin began to change thanks to IL-15. After three months, it started showing the same characteristics of younger skin, suggesting that exercise pretty much caused their skin to age in reverse.
6. Limit Your Exposure to Airborne Pollution
You probably already know how damaging cigarette smoking can be to skin — it’s hard to ignore. “People who smoke accelerate aging by probably a factor of 10,” Dr. Rawls says. “In my years of practicing medicine, when someone walked in, I could tell immediately just by looking at them if they smoked and for how long.”
Smog and other pollutants floating around in the air can similarly damage skin, making it look sallow and triggering signs of aging before they might otherwise start to develop. That’s because airborne pollutants, which come in the form of smog, toxic gases, and particulate matter (small bits of dust, soot, metals, and other toxins), are themselves free radicals that directly attack skin from both the outside and inside.
First, the pollutants cling to skin’s surface and may even penetrate skin (pollution particles can be much smaller than even pores). Eventually, they can trigger oxidative stress and wreak all sorts of havoc, according to studies.
Breathing them in also carries the free radicals straight into your system, contributing to inflammation, Dr. Rawls says. Researchers in Germany, for example, have published studies showing that people who have lived for years in neighborhoods with high levels of pollution from motor vehicles and other sources have more pigmentation and are more likely to have deeper wrinkles than those who reside in areas with less-toxic air.
7. Give Your Skin TLC
One way to minimize the effects of pollution, aside from consuming plenty of antioxidant-rich foods and herbs and regularly escaping from the city to more natural environs, is by keeping skin clean. Gently wash your face every day to remove pollutants from skin’s surface, especially if you live in a traffic-heavy or industrial urban area.
The key word, however, is gently. Scrubbing skin too aggressively or using harsh cleansers can strip its natural moisturizing oils, alter its pH, cause redness and irritation, and compromise skin’s barrier function, which is what keeps water in and irritants, including pollution particles, out. All of this can leave skin drier and wrinkles more prominent.
Overdoing it may also disrupt skin’s microbiome. Yup, skin plays host to its own collection of microbes, just like your gut’s microbiome, which help keep it healthy and functioning properly, plus it plays a role in general immunity. If the balance of bacteria on skin is thrown off, it may contribute to inflammation, reports a review in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology.
After cleansing, always follow up with moisturizer, which can bolster skin’s barrier and keep it soft. In fact, moisturizer alone can help skin look instantly younger and brighter. Skin is like a sponge — when its dry, all the creases and crevices are more apparent. But water helps skin look plumper and smoother and allows light to bounce off it more evenly, creating a brighter, more youthful appearance.
“Look for good-quality, natural moisturizers,” Dr. Rawls says. “So many moisturizers contain petroleum derivatives.” Opt for topical hydrators that contain plant oils and butters, such as jojoba oil or shea and cocoa butters. Not only are the effective moisturizers, most contain antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties that, even when used topically, may further help reduce the effects of free radicals, according to a review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
Age brings wisdom, and no matter how old you are now, you’d be wise to start implementing these tips to make sure wrinkles, sagging skin, and age spots don’t tag along for the ride.
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