What has the greatest ageing effect on skin?

Sarah Hyland

Studying Health Sciences, Writer & Product Trainer

25 May 2021

6 key factors that age the skin faster

I am on the worthy mission to find out what makes skin age. This is crucial information for determining the best defensive anti-ageing strategy.

After thoroughly researching this topic, I have pulled together the key factors that will have the greatest ageing effect on the skin. The biggest external influences are smoking, environmental hazards and radiation from sunlight. Within the body, our genetic makeup but also the levels of oxygen, nutrients and hormones will determine how quickly the skin ages.

We may not be able to halt time but we can certainly find ways to avoid the things that are detrimental and skin-ageing.

So, let's take a closer look at each of these key factors to find out why they have such a negative effect on your skin and what you can do to prevent them from ageing your skin faster.

1. Sun damage

My mother was right! Sun rays contain UV radiation, which has a harmful and carcinogenic effect on the skin. Dermatologists call this photodamage or photoaging. UVB light damages DNA in the top layer of skin cells, while UVA can penetrate the deepest layers, destroying elastin fibres, collagen and little blood vessels. Goodbye taut, youthful, unblemished shell. Pigment in the skin (melanin) will give people with dark complexions some degree of natural protection; but pale, fair-skinned individuals are much more vulnerable to sunlight's inflammatory effect(1). On the plus side, if you can find a sensible balance and keep yourself protected, there are benefits to being outside and enjoying lovely weather. I can think of no greater pleasure than feeling the sun on the back of my neck after a long winter. We know that it helps trigger both the production of vitamin D and endorphins (pleasure hormones) in the skin. Interestingly, it also signals your body to stop storing as much fat – how cool is that?!!! Summer slimming signals from your skin...

2. Smoking

Smoking starves the skin by inhibiting its blood supply of oxygen and nutrients. It's been described as an ageing accelerator. Puckered wrinkles that form around lips and resemble the pursed orifice of a retreating canine are called smoker's lines. Exposure to nicotine (and other chemicals associated with smoking) rapidly ages the skin and reduces its ability to repair collagen(2). 29% of smokers smoked more during the stress of lockdown this year(3), while 19% of 25-34 years olds report being more likely to smoke(4). That's a significant amount of skin being harmed by this addictive habit. Read more about the signs of ageing skin.

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3. Environmental pollution

UV radiation, ambient ozone, nitrogen dioxide, traffic-related air pollution and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) have been shown to increase wrinkles and age spots (environment-induced lentigo)(5). Environmental toxins and household chemicals penetrate the skin and cause inflammation and oxidative stress. We do have natural antioxidants in the skin that are able to reduce the effects of pollution, but they can become outnumbered(6). The protective barrier function of the skin is weakened by both pollutants and the effects of ageing. The result is even more ageing!

4. Menopause

Women have oestrogen receptors in the skin that are affected by reduced hormonal levels from the forties on. Women will often complain that their skin and hair changes during the menopause transition and even before their periods stop. The drop in oestrogen at this time can affect collagen production; skin can lose some of its elasticity; the water content of the skin is reduced, making it dry and dull-looking(7). Although menopause can be a major skin event for women, all skin can start to age, thin and become more fragile earlier, regardless of sex hormones. Read at what stage this begins to happen here.

5. Genes

The genes inherited from parents will determine skin type, how pale we are, whether we get freckles, but also how well our DNA is repaired when damaged. Up to 60% of skin-ageing propensity is genetic make-up, which means that some people will naturally look younger for longer. In this regard, pale blue-eyed Caucasians, like me (more sensitive to the sun's damaging effects) may age faster than those with Asian skin(8). If your family has dry skin, it may not be as resilient to ageing, due to the reduced protective effect of natural moisturising factor (NMF). Inherited tendencies towards inflammation and flare-ups associated with conditions like eczema act like skin stressors that have an ageing effect. We may not be able to control the type of skin we are born with, but we certainly can protect and treat it, therefore reducing the effects of ageing and damage. Read more about how to do this here.

6. Poor supply of nutrients and oxygen

A nutrient-poor diet starves the skin of vital food and antioxidants needed for repair work. Skin needs water, oxygen and nutrients. Without these, the skin becomes depleted, tired, dull, and greyish. Antioxidants are needed to repair DNA damage, and these are not available in highly processed junk food. Alcohol, saturated fats and excess sugar add stress and inflammation to the skin and will certainly speed up the ageing process.

Moisture, water and healthy oils are needed to generate the skin's natural moisturising factor, crucial to the very top layer of skin. This is made up of a layer of old skin cells - our protective, leathery and waterproof surface.

The bottom layer of skin is serviced by a network of little blood vessels that serve up the oxygen and food for our skin cells, including fibroblasts (collagen cells) and keratinocytes (skin cells), melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) and langerhans (the immune cells). Inactivity ages the skin, in part because we need the muscles pumping regularly to keep blood and lymph moving around the body.

How can I stop my skin from ageing too quickly?

Any anti-ageing strategy should include skincare products that give nourishment and protection to the skin. It makes sense to me to avoid harsh artificial chemical ingredients and preservatives and to go for natural alternatives that the body will recognise as skin food.

Herbal creams, such as our Comfrey Cream and natural oils like rosehip seed oil contain potent active plant compounds that are rich in antioxidants and that promote collagen repair and production.

But it's not all about shopping for anti-ageing skincare! Don't forget to:

  • Give up or reduce smoking. This is not an easy endeavour and I certainly had numerous failed attempts before I kicked the habit. Let me assure you that it is worth it – may the force be with you.
  • Eat as many brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables as you can, the rule of thumb is that the more intense the colour, the more nutrient and antioxidant content. So something like a lurid orange sweet potato will be more anti-ageing than a regular spud.
  • Cover up – Big wide glamorous sun hats, sunglasses and SFP sunscreen will help protect your skin from damaging UV rays.

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