One of the more distressing aspects of midlife for many women is watching our skin change, beginning with wrinkles. Wrinkles are formed when collagen fibers and elastin in the deeper layers of the skin start to break down. Because collagen and elastin keep the skin supple and resilient, allowing it to stretch and contract, when collagen gets broken down, skin tends to sag and wrinkle. (Wrinkles may also depend on your lineage, as the tendency to wrinkle is inherited.)
While wrinkles and most other skin changes associated with aging are natural and harmless, they are, nonetheless, cosmetically unattractive to most of us. Fortunately, you can do a great deal to preserve the health of your midlife skin and even heal some of the damage that has been done. Understanding the anatomy of the skin is the first step in understanding what you can do to keep it looking its best.
The skin has three layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the innermost fat layer. The epidermis is where new skin cells are produced. This layer also contains the cells known as melanocytes that produce melanin—the pigment that determines the color of the skin. The dermis lies underneath the epidermis and makes up about 90 percent of the thickness of the skin. This is the area that contains the nerves which sense pressure, temperature, and pain, and also sweat glands, hair follicles, sebaceous glands which produce oil, and also blood vessels. The sweat and sebaceous glands secrete a thin layer of perspiration and oil that forms a protective acid mantle on the skin. The dermis also contains the skin’s collagen layer, a dense meshwork of fibers that give the skin elasticity and strength. Beneath the dermis and epidermis lies the fat layer, which serves to insulate and protect our inner organs and acts as a sort of cushion that helps keep our skin plump.
Together these three layers form what constitutes the boundary between ourselves as individuals and the remainder of our world. We can therefore see how important it is to care for this very special “barrier” organ—with not just topical efforts and applications, but from the inside out, by eating healthy foods and drinking clean water, getting adequate exercise and rest, and by cultivating the light of our inner spirit.
Some women notice that their skin gets drier, begins to sag and appear crepey. Some women notice more wrinkles and spots. Growths may also appear. And in addition, following an injury our skin may heal more slowly than it did in our youth.
A number of factors contribute to skin aging, including poor diet, ingestion of toxins, and declining "anti-aging" hormones. But scientists now think that free-radical damage may be one of the primary causes of aging, including premature wrinkling of the skin and age-related diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis. In short, free radicals are oxygen molecules that have lost an electron through interaction with other molecules. The resulting oxygen molecules are very unstable and reactive. In order to restore their missing electron, they steal them from other “healthy” molecules, thus creating more free radicals and in the process, damaging cells. The result in the body is like rust on steel.
The collagen layer of our skin is especially susceptible to free radical damage that arises from sun and pollution exposure, resulting in a process known as cross-linking. Cross-linking of the naturally supple collagen molecules makes them become stiff and inflexible, eventually resulting in skin that looks and feels “old and leathery.” Free radicals that are produced when the sun hits the skin activate molecules known as transcription factors, which signal cellular DNA to produce proteins that are pro-inflammatory and harmful to the cell. This same process also produces collagen-digesting enzymes that can leave tiny defects in the skin which give rise over time to wrinkles.
The American Academy of Dermatology now attributes 90–95 percent of skin aging to sun exposure—specifically damage done by ultraviolet rays to the collagen fibers in the dermis. If you do not believe this, just examine the skin on your buttocks and lower back. You will notice something very important: It is very smooth and wrinkle-free! The reason for this is because this skin is generally protected from ultraviolet rays from the sun for most of your life.
Skin that is chronically overexposed to the sun is in a constant state of inflammation. While this mild inflammation of a suntan plumps up the skin temporarily and gives it a youthful appearance, once the tan goes away, wrinkles appear. And any tissue inflammation begins the metabolic cascade that eventually causes degenerative changes.
Cigarette smoking also produces free radicals and is another of the skin’s worst enemies. The ill effects of smoking become very obvious at mid-life. Past studies have shown that the skin of smokers ages twice as fast after the age of 30 as the skin of non-smokers.
Women who smoke often have a paler skin tone, darker circles under their eyes, more crepeyness and premature wrinkling, especially around their eyes and mouth, than non-smokers. Some of this is due to the decrease in circulation to the skin caused by nicotine. When circulation decreases, fewer nutrients can get to the skin and the skin is less able to release toxins produced by cell metabolism. This results in slow skin growth and rejuvenation. Smoking also dehydrates the skin and depletes it of vitamins A, E, C and B–complex, and the minerals calcium, potassium and zinc. In addition, smoking directly poisons the ovaries. This leads to decreased levels of estrogen, which is necessary to help maintain elastin and collagen fibers.
Some scientists now believe that topical treatment with vitamin A creams, such as Retin-A and Renova, can have some effect on the rebuilding of collagen. However, these products can be very irritating to some skin types and can result in excessive flakiness on the cheeks and jaw line. Women who use Retin-A or Renova on the fine lines around the eyes have reported some improvement. However, many note that the improvement generally disappears when they stop using the cream. It could be that the slight irritation of the Retin–A or Renova causes the lines to appear less visible. When the inflammation subsides after discontinuing the product, they are left with little improvement over where they started. It is always best to avoid skin irritation whenever possible.
In addition to such things as getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water, reducing stress, and avoiding alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs, there are several specific steps you can take to minimize the effects of aging on your skin. Here are some suggestions:
AHAs are naturally-occurring acids derived from substances such as milk (lactic acid), sugar cane (glycolic acid) and apples (malic acid). Commercial products usually contain 5–10% fruit acids, concentrations that are low enough and safe enough for all skin types and tones. It’s always best, however, to test any new skin care product first, either on the inner part of your elbow or just under your jawline, to make sure you’re not sensitive to it. Glycolic acid has a structure and function similar to that of vitamin C and, like the other fruit acids, has been shown to help reduce fine lines and wrinkles, fade age spots, and moisturize the skin with regular use.2
Products ranging from 5 to 12% concentration are widely available and have been shown to help the exfoliation and skin rejuvenation process in all skin types. They help normalize your skin whether it’s dry or oily. If it’s oily, they remove the top dead layer of cells, thus allowing oil to flow out of the follicle more easily, so that it can be removed without stripping away essential moisture. If your skin is dry, fruit acids remove the dry dead layer and stimulate cell renewal. If your skin is sensitive, start with a 5% product, test it on an inconspicuous patch of facial skin (under your jaw) first. Then gradually work upward to 10–12%, if tolerated. You may experience a slight stinging with some products until you get used to them.
Many fruit acid-containing lotions and creams are also available for the legs, arms, etc. It usually takes about two weeks before you’ll notice a difference in your skin with regular use of an AHA. Start with an AHA at night only, and then after a week or more, apply it twice per day for maximum effect. In addition to the exfoliant properties of alpha, beta hydroxy and glycolic acids mentioned above, they also have antioxidant properties, and therefore work well in combination with other antioxidants.