The INSIDER Summary:
- We can't stop aging, but we do have some control over how old our skin looks.
- Science has identified a number of strategies to keep skin looking young.
- The basics: Protect skin from the sun and tanning beds, don't smoke, eat a healthy diet, use moisturizer and retinoids, and get enough sleep.
Alas: There's still no way to totally stop skin from aging. The nefarious combination of time and gravity will eventually cause everyone's skin to sag and wrinkle at a genetically pre-determined point, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Not even all those seemingly immortal celebrities are immune.
But there's good news: Scientists say that up to 40% of the physical changes that make us look older are actually caused by non-genetic factors. That means there's a lot you can do to keep your skin looking younger for longer.
Here's an overview of what science can tell us about daily habits and aging skin.
1. Protect your skin from the sun.
Yes, we know, this is obvious — but minimizing sun exposure is critical if you want younger-looking skin in the long term. The sun's UVA radiation penetrates deep into your skin, where it damages collagen (a protein that gives skin structure) and messes with the way your skin rebuilds itself. Over time, this leads to wrinkled, leathery skin. Sun exposure can also cause pesky age spots, sometimes called liver spots.
Sunscreen is a great way to protect your skin, but it shouldn't be your only line of defense. Some research has shown that relying on sunscreen alone can leave people with more sunburns — possibly because people might use it to justify staying out in the sun even longer. Experts say you should also seek out shade and cover your skin with clothing whenever possible, too.
And remember that sunscreen isn't just for beach days, or even sunny days. The AAD still recommends wearing sunscreen on every day that you go outside, no matter the weather. Choose a product that offers "broad spectrum" protection with an SPF of 30 to 50. (Here's why SPF higher than 50 is essentially meaningless.)
2. Don't go indoor tanning.
Protecting yourself from fake sunlight is just as important as protecting yourself from real sunlight.
The bulbs in tanning beds emit primarily UVA rays, which are a major cause of skin aging. Even worse: The amount of UVA they emit is up to 12 times higher than what you'd get from natural sunlight, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. We might as well start calling them aging beds instead of tanning beds.
3. Don't smoke.
In case you need another reason to quit (or never start) smoking: Just remember that it causes wrinkles.
The Mayo Clinic explains that nicotine in cigarettes narrows blood vessels, which lessens blood flow to the skin. This means your skin doesn't get as much of the oxygen and important nutrients that it needs to look healthy. Many of the chemicals in cigarette smoke also directly damage collagen and elastin, two proteins that support the skin's structure. Finally, smoking usually involves repeated facial expressions, like pursing the lips, which can accelerate wrinkling.
Scientists have published plenty of photographic proof to support this. Check out these before-and-after pictures from a study that compared the skin and smoking habits of identical twins. In some cases, the differences are dramatic.
4. Eat lots of fruits and veggies — and skip foods loaded with sugar and saturated fats.
An ice cream sundae or bacon cheeseburger here and there is no big deal, but your overall diet does affect the way your skin looks. And according to the AAD, diets high in added sugars can damage elastin and collagen, which can lead to wrinkles and sagging. Eating an excess of trans and saturated fats can also make skin look older.
On the other hand, a healthy eating pattern with lots of plant foods and healthy fats (like the kind in fish, nuts, and avocados) supplies the nutrients needed for healthy skin aging, according to dietitian Wendy Bazilian. One study even found that a diet high in carotenoids — compounds abundant in kale, carrots, and more — gave people a glow comparable to a real suntan.
5. Use moisturizer every day.
Moisturizers aren't magical, and they can't erase wrinkles, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. But the dermatologists of the AAD say that daily moisturizing traps water in the skin, which can reduce the appearance of fine lines and make your skin look brighter and more youthful overall.
Got a moisturizer that also includes broad-spectrum sunscreen? Even better.
6. Try an anti-aging product (especially a retinoid).
Retinoids are considered the gold standard of anti-aging. They were first developed to treat acne, but then doctors noticed that they also improved the appearance of wrinkles and brown spots, and eventually a retinoid known as tretinoin got FDA approval as an anti-aging ingredient. In general, retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that work by boosting collagen and speeding up skin cell turnover. The downside is they can cause redness, flakiness, and peeling.
Tretinoin is the strongest retinoid you can get — you need to get a prescription from a doctor to use it. You can also buy over-the-counter products that contain ingredients called retinols, though they're not quite as strong as the prescription stuff.
There are a few non-retinoid ingredients that could help, too, according to the AAD.
First, exfoliating alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) smooth out skin and may improve the appearance of fine lines. Look for AHAs like glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid in over-the counter products.
Next, creams, serums, and lotions with vitamin C could soften fine lines and lighten dark spots.
And lastly, over-the-counter products with glycolic acid, hydroquinone, kojic acid, licorice extracts, N-acetylglucosamine, niacinamide, or soy may also lighten dark spots.
The AAD also recommends keeping your expectations realistic: The effect of most anti-aging creams will be "modest," the organization says, and some could take up to three months to start working.
7. Get enough sleep.
A few small studies have examined the link between poor sleep and skin aging. They've found that lack of sleep can make you look both older and less healthy, and may make it harder for your skin to recover from damage and irritation.
And even if it doesn't make your skin look better, there are plenty of other compelling reasons to log more time sleeping. The current recommendation for adults is 7 to 9 hours per night — here's how to find out exactly how much you need.