Our face is the canvas of our character, mirroring life’s experience: freckles from summers at the beach, frown lines from worry, or lingering laugh lines—which, for some, are no longer a laughing matter. Little wonder, then, that we go to such great lengths to preserve or restore our skin. Nightingale droppings, caviar facials, and crushed pearl are prized in different cultures for their prowess in preserving flawless skin. In America, and the world over, skin care is big business. Browse the cosmetic aisle at any major drug or department store and you’ll encounter countless nostrums promising to repair, rejuvenate, and protect mature skin. In the quest for a youthful appearance, consumers will spend more than $7 billion in 2010, according to industry analysts.
But with so many choices, which treatments actually improve and protect the skin’s appearance, and which ones simply add a new wrinkle to the budget? The best way to answer that question is to look first at what it is you’re saving your skin from:
When outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed hat and tightly woven clothing that covers your body.
Block the Sun
Protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UVA/UVB) radiation exposure (including indoor tanning), extremes of heat and cold, and air pollution can significantly reduce your risk of wrinkles and skin cancer.
“Baby boomers didn’t know better and received a great deal of harmful sun exposure before sunscreens were available,” says Dr. C. William Hanke, an eminent dermatologist and past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. “Ultraviolet light causes malignant melanoma, as well as basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, which are much more common skin cancers.”
Thankfully, broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays and are widely available today. They’re crucial for skin protection, and not just in the summer. While the sun’s UVB rays are strongest in the northern hemisphere May through September, UVA rays are present year round, penetrating windshields, light clothing, and office windows.
However, comparing the ingredients of one sunscreen to another can leave one bleary-eyed and confused.
“Check the product label,” advises Dr. Hanke. “Good broad-spectrum sunscreens have an SPF of 30 or greater and contain protective ingredients that include: avobenzone, ecamsule, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide.”
Choose a sunscreen that works best for you. People with oily skin may prefer an alcohol-based gel. Individuals with dry skin want a cream for moisture.
When applying sunscreen, don’t forget less obvious, but vulnerable areas, such as the ears, neck, and face—anywhere that is exposed.
“We see golfers in my clinical practice all the time,” says Dr. Hanke, who reports an increasing number of cancers on the lips, ears, and eyelids of outdoor enthusiasts who fail to adequately protect sensitive areas. “They golf for five or six hours at a time and need to wear sunscreens. The same advice applies to winter skiers as well.”
Clothing also adds an extra layer of protection. “Wear a hat,” stresses Dr. Hanke. “Men with hereditary hair loss who don’t wear hats are at higher risk for premalignant lesions and skin cancers—mostly squamous cell carcinomas—on their scalps. It can be a huge problem.”
When choosing sun-protective clothing, opt for dense, tightly woven fabrics.
“If you hold the hat or shirt up to the light and can see through it, so can the sun,” Dr. Hanke adds. “The hat should have a tight weave to protect the scalp.”
Today, most sporting goods companies, apparel stores, and online outlets sell sun-protective clothing.
Snuff Out Smoke
Aside from the serious health consequences, smoking and secondhand exposure is also bad for your skin—next in line to the sun in causing wrinkles. Nicotine impairs blood flow to the skin, accelerating the normal aging of epidermal tissue.
Keep It Clean
Older skin is thinner and more fragile, and the deep layers contain less elastic tissue. Blood vessels are also less elastic, so that even minor injuries can cause bruising. The skin may be mottled with small, flat brown areas called lentigines (from the Latin word for lentils).
Young Skin: A thick outer layer and a large number of elastic fibers in the deeper layers help maintain the smoothness of young skin.
Older Skin: A thinner outer layer and fewer elastic fibers in the deeper layers result in skin that appears loose, with deeper creases and wrinkles.
Images reprinted from The Human Body, ©1995 Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
Facial hygiene is also critical. One of the first steps is choosing the right cleanser.
“If you have oily skin, you can use any soap you want, and it will probably not be irritating,” Dr. Hanke says. “The soap that I recommend for most people and use myself is plain white Dove. People with dry or oily skin can use it.”
For people with rough and scaly skin, occasionally using an exfoliant makes skin appear smoother and feel softer.
“As you age, dead cells build up on the skin surface,” Dr. Hanke explains. “Exfoliation removes the dead surface layer, and moisturizing helps keep skin soft.”
Cleanse your face twice a day—once in the morning and again at bedtime, then apply a moisturizer based on your skin type. For dry skin, opt for an occlusive moisturizer that covers the skin with a waterproof film through which water cannot evaporate or escape. For sensitive skin, some experts recommend applying a moisturizer containing soothing ingredients, such as bisabolol, a chamomile extract.
“As we get older, our skin is not the barrier that it once was,” says Dr. Hanke. “It dries out more easily. As a result, people need to moisturize their skin more frequently.”
Do high-end products equate with higher quality?
“Some inexpensive moisturizers such as Neutrogena and Oil of Olay are very good, as are some very expensive ones, such as La Prairie and LaMer,” notes the dermatologist. “Find one that works for you and does not irritate your skin.”
A word of caution: Don’t introduce too many products at the same time.
“Stick with one product line,” advises Dr. Hanke. “Different products can inactivate each other through chemical reactions and potentially irritate the skin surface.”
Rejuvenating Aging Skin
Innovations in anti-aging skin care are on the fast track to meet the growing demand of baby boomers (and their parents). From nonprescription “cosmeceuticals” to laser treatments, therapies are available that improve the skin’s surface texture, reduce irregular pigmentation, and help reverse the effects of sun damage.
Topicals: Typically used to address milder signs of aging. For example, retinol, a vitamin A compound, is the first antioxidant topical widely used in nonprescription creams and is the less potent cousin of tretinoin (Retin-A, Avage, Renova), a prescription-strength treatment for acne and fine wrinkles.The fastest growing segment of topical skin care, cosmeceuticals combine aspects of the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Cosmeceuticals influence the function of the skin with biologically active compounds (vitamins, oils, herbs, and botanical extracts). Botanicals, for example, contain antioxidants that protect the skin’s surface. William Beeson, M.D., clinical professor in dermatology at Indiana University School of Medicine and noted facial plastic surgeon, has researched a cornucopia of compounds that rejuvenate skin tissues. His research led to the discovery of unique properties in rosemary, an herb that contains a potent antioxidant called carnosic acid. After demonstrating clinical efficacy, Dr. Beeson and colleagues developed a formulation called Effulgere (effulgere.com) that penetrates the skin surface more deeply and helps “protect the skin from further damage by enhancing the skin’s lipid barrier, brightening the skin, and improving its texture and tone.”
Chemical Peels: A chemical solution—such as phenol, tricholoacetic acid (TCA), or alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)—that removes damaged outer layers of the skin, revealing the healthier layers below. Wrinkles from sun damage, aging, and heredity can be significantly reduced by undergoing a series of peels that also improve irregular skin pigmentation and remove early skin cancers (actinic keratoses).
Lasers: Many laser treatments are now used to minimize wrinkles, scars, skin discolorations (freckles or “age spots”), and blemishes on the face, neck, chest, and back of hands by removing the outer layer of skin (epidermis). The treatment simultaneously heats underlying tissues (dermis), stimulating the growth of new collagen fibers that form smoother, firmer skin. One of the more popular areas in minimally invasive cosmetic surgery, fractionated carbon dioxide (CO2) laser treatment is performed under topical anesthesia on select areas of damaged skin. The outpatient procedure creates microscopic holes in the skin, which then heal with new collagen that tightens skin and evens tone. Newer technologies offer surgeons a greater level of control in laser surfacing, permitting extreme precision, particularly in delicate areas.
Fillers: These reduce the appearance of facial lines and wrinkles by “plumping” furrows and hollows in the face, giving the skin a more youthful-looking appearance. Fillers (Juvaderm, Restylane, Gore-Tex) are very effective at contouring specific areas on the face, such as around the lips, including long, vertical “marionette” lines that start at the corners of the mouth and extend down the chin. Botulinum toxin type A (Botox, Dysport) injections also diminish lines and wrinkles associated with facial expression, including vertical lines between the eyebrows and on the bridge of the nose, forehead lines and furrows, and crow’s feet.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now