Sarah A. Haydel, MD; Dermatologist, Haydel Dermatology, Houma, LA.
Every day, we make decisions on behalf of our skin: How to protect it, how to care for it and how to treat it. The skin is also faced with numerous challenges, starting with external factors we encounter every day—like sun exposure and pollution—and lifestyle decisions we make that can contribute to the aging process.
The biggest way that external factors affect the skin is through the breakdown of collagen. Think of youthful skin as a hard mattress: It contains strong collagen fibers to keep it supple and firm. As we age, that mattress becomes soft and squishy as the skin loses collagen. Gravity takes over, causing sagging and increased skin laxity. Also, weak collagen cannot support the blood vessels in the skin and may lead to broken capillaries.
The primary contributor to lost collagen? You guessed it—the sun. Years of cumulative exposure cause wrinkling, brown spots and skin cancer, thanks to powerful UVA rays capable of penetrating deep into the skin and damaging its DNA. UVB rays are responsible for sunburn and can intensify in high altitudes or snowy locales (where 80 percent of the sun’s rays are reflected back onto our skin).
Luckily, broad-spectrum sunscreens protect from both types of damaging UV rays. When selecting a sunscreen, look for an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 93 percent of the sun’s rays. I recommend physical sunblock as opposed to chemical formulas. Unlike the bright, opaque versions you may remember lifeguards sporting years ago, physical sunscreens now boast new, elegant formulations that absorb easily into the skin. Physical sunscreens are also less likely to cause irritation in sensitive skin types.
Contrary to the marketing you may have heard from tanning salons, indoor tanning is no safer than exposure to natural sunlight. According to a startling statistic from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, there is a 75 percent increase in melanoma risk in people who first used tanning beds in their teens and twenties.
Smoking, like tanning, is a direct carcinogen to the skin. In addition to destroying collagen (not to mention being a proven cause of multiple cancers), smoking constricts blood vessels, depriving the skin of oxygen. As I tell my patients, this action can be equated with “choking” the skin from the inside. This means that the skin will be much slower to heal—in fact, just one cigarette can cause blood vessels to constrict for a full hour afterward.
Other lifestyle choices can directly affect the skin, as well. Alcohol consumption can be very dehydrating to the body and the skin, causing the complexion to look dull. Frequent drinking may also contribute to blotchiness, redness or aggravated rosacea.
The recent organic trend has led to a focus on the food we consume and how it affects our appearance. Poor nutrition can lead to slower wound healing and sallow skin. Like the rest of the body, our complexion reflects the healthiness—or lack thereof—of our diet. I advise my patients to eat a well-balanced diet, complete with fruits, vegetables and to drink lots of water.
The use of sunscreen is the number one action people can take to prevent the signs of aging; a topical regimen that incorporates vitamins A (also known as retinol), C and E is also important. These antioxidants help to neutralize free radical damage caused by sun, pollution and other environmental toxins we encounter that can affect the health of the skin.
Commit to healthy choices and protection. Though modern-day dermatologic procedures can work wonders to reverse years of damage, prevention is the best way to ensure a healthy future for your skin.