How the Environment Affects Our Skin
It’s often said that we are a product of our environment, and the same adage holds true for our skin. The skin never forgets—and each day, it encounters a host of extrinsic factors that contribute to its overall state of health and wellness.
All skin types are adversely affected by sun exposure; in fact, it is the most damaging thing that can be inflicted on our skin. Sun damage starts in childhood and is cumulative; there is a delay between the time that we incur sun damage and when it reveals itself in a host of visible changes to the skin.
Microscopic damage occurs to upper layers of the dermis with the disruption of collagen and elastic fibers. Over time, the epidermis thins and the visible signs of aging appear, including fine lines, wrinkles, thinning, roughness, spider veins, alterations in pigment, and ultimately, the leathery appearance synonymous with chronically sun-damaged skin.
In addition, UV rays and other environmental toxin are known to contribute to the formation of both free radicals and reactive oxygen species, known as ROS. UV rays account for the formation of approximately 80 percent of ROS molecules, which cause damage to the skin’s DNA as well as its crucial anatomical structures like collagen and elastin.
The skin has a built-in protective system of endogenous antioxidants that help to neutralize these damaging molecules. However, when the system is overwhelmed by UV exposure and environmental toxins or simply loses its ability to fight these toxins over time, ROS cause photoaging characterized by wrinkling, pigmentation disorders and ultimately, the formation of skin cancers.
How our skin manifests damage is also influenced by genetics. Factors such as skin, eye and hair color are inherited, meaning that a significant portion of how our skin reacts to the sun has been predetermined. The lighter one’s skin, hair and eyes, the more sensitive they are to sun damage.
Since the sun plays such a major role in skin aging, the importance of being “sun smart” cannot be overstated. Telling my patients to avoid the sun entirely would be an exercise in futility; however, there are simple ways to minimize the sun’s effects—starting, of course, with sunscreen.
Applying broad spectrum sunscreen daily should be as instinctive as brushing our teeth. I recommend a minimum of SPF 30. Sunscreen needs to bind chemically to the skin to be at its most effective, so it is best applied to dry skin at least 15 minutes prior to going outdoors.
We accumulate just as much (if not more) damage through casual sunlight exposure—think walking or even standing outside—than we do when sitting by the pool. Remember: Shade only reduces UV exposure by approximately 40 percent. If you can see the light, the light can see you.
Since no sunscreen is 100 percent effective, we also look to antioxidants to block the harmful effects of free radicals on our skin cells and DNA. In addition to the skin’s endogenous system of antioxidants, adding topical and oral antioxidants (in the form of fruits, vegetables and supplements) is helpful in protecting the skin against damage.
Fortunately, today’s technologies afford us many options to assist in the battle against aging, both at home and when visiting the doctor’s office. The use of topical retinoids and growth factors has been shown to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and sagging.
A series of chemical peels with alpha hydroxy and trichloroacetic acids will remove dead skin that accumulate with age and stimulate epidermal turnover to improve the appearance of damaged skin. I also recommend regular laser skin resurfacing and the use of intense pulsed light (IPL), which utilizes a broad spectrum of light to treat redness and discoloration.
In addition, the use of neurotoxins (most commonly known as Botox or Dysport) can provide significant improvement in fine lines and wrinkles on the forehead, crow’s-feet and between the eyebrows, along with other areas of the face as determined by your dermatologist. Neurotoxin injections not only temporarily diminish lines—they may help to improve their appearance over time by reducing the repeated muscle contractions that cause wrinkling.
A dermatologist is best equipped with the expert knowledge to customize a skin care regimen with the most effective ways to treat and protect your skin. Life is about balance: By avoiding excessive sun exposure, wearing protective clothing and making sun protection a daily ritual, you can help to ensure a healthier future for your skin.