Get Your Glow On
WELLNESS-November + December 2011
By Genevieve Morgan
Illustration by Jamie Hogan
Unwrap your skin’s potential
I know it’s Grinch-like to start off with a negative, but it’s hard to think of a marketing term I find more repugnant than “aging skin”—not because I don’t admire the healthy, plump, radiant skin we all had as babies, but because the term is a misnomer and indirectly shaming. Think about it. From the moment fetal stem cells initiate skin-tissue growth in the womb, our skin is technically “aging.” Despite what all those pretty cosmetic advertisements say, the only way to stop skin from aging is to stop aging altogether. So here’s my first holiday gift to you: don’t blame yourself for aging! Embrace your age, and all the wisdom that comes with it, and congratulate yourself on another year spent walking the planet in your Earth suit.
But when it comes to that Earth suit—the envelope of tissue we call skin, our body’s largest organ—marketing companies get away with a lot of loose terminology and misleading claims. It has been shown that certain topical skin treatments—such as retinols, peptides, hydrocodone, and glycolic acids—can help, to varying degrees, reduce dryness, fine lines, hyper-pigmentation, and chronic skin conditions like dermatitis, melasma, and rosacea. But what the ads don’t tell you is that truly effective skin care goes far deeper than lotions and potions.
The best skin-care routine starts with a shift in attitude. Instead of focusing on what you see in the mirror, think of your skin as an outward reflection of your underlying health. But understand that physical manifestations of beauty on the outside begin—first and foremost—with positive choices that nurture your health on the inside. And I’m not talking spiritual beauty here (though that’s important), I’m talking about the nuts and bolts of genetics and cellular regeneration. I’m talking about keeping the little life-energy factories in your cells, otherwise known as mitochondria, from self-destructing so that you won’t look any older, flakier, and spottier than you have to.
In the broadest of terms, your skin is composed of three major layers: the deepest layer, the hypodermis, is insulating fat that stores nutrients and lends shock absorption; the dermis, the middle layer, is a fibrous network of tissue that provides structure and strength; and the outer layer, or epidermis, is made up of five strata that act as a protective shield around the body. The appearance of the epidermis—that healthy glow we’re after—relies heavily on the vitality of the layers and bodily systems beneath. Along the borderlands of the dermis and epidermis, a lot of essential cellular activity occurs that, among other functions, regulates hydration, heat and oxygen exchange, and immune response. The protein collagen lives in the dermis and creates a meshlike net that gives the epidermis its elasticity and resilience. The hypodermis provides the nutrient reserves that nourish the skin. Most topical beauty products, despite their far-reaching health and beauty claims, rarely penetrate deeper than the top layers of the epidermis, so they alone will not have a lasting impact. But when you combine good skin-care products with health-promoting lifestyle and good nutrition, you will see a noticeable difference in the texture, tone, and clarity of your skin. I could fill a book on how to get and keep your long-term glow on, but here are five simple steps that will get you well on your way.
• Drink several eight-ounce glasses of water every day. Drinking enough water throughout the day helps the skin stay supple (think of a sponge) and aids in the elimination of toxins. This matters because what doesn’t get flushed out of your system often gets stored in the hypodermis, which can disrupt the normal interchange between skin layers by shortening or fragmenting the cellular DNA and damaging the cell’s mitochondria—ultimately leading to cell death and premature aging of the skin. Inflammation will also worsen chronic acne and rosacea.
• Protect your skin from too much sun exposure. Ultraviolet radiation (those UVA and UVB rays) is a major enemy in the battle waged every day in your body against free radicals. Smoking is another. Free radicals are unstable, highly reactive molecules that are missing one electron from their outer orbit. Since electrons like to travel in pairs, free radicals are like that lonely, suspicious person at a party looking to steal your girlfriend or boyfriend—they are always ready to spirit away electrons from healthy cells and set off an unhealthy chain reaction that undermines collagen production. Luckily, your body is equipped to neutralize free radicals if it has access to nutrients called antioxidants. These relationship-savers are derived mostly from plants and have an extra electron that they happily surrender.
• Reduce the amount of sugar in your diet. Picture an apple slice exposed to air and you will begin to understand the unsightly effects that a process called oxidization has on your skin. Sugar feeds oxidization at the cellular level and, like free radicals, interrupts the production of collagen and elastin, another firming natural chemical.
• Limit exposure to toxic topical chemicals. Parabens and pthalates, two chemicals used regularly in cosmetics and beauty products, are synthetic preservatives that increase a product’s shelf life and skin-absorption rate. Pthalates are petroleum-based plastics that give products their rich, silky feel. At best, though, these nasty chemicals contribute to inflammation and, at worst, may seriously impair fertility and hormonal balance.
• Take a high-quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement, such as fish oil or flaxseed oil, every day. Healthy fats are imperative to healthy skin—they act like internal moisturizers that soothe inflammation and provide necessary nutrients to the hypodermis, making skin supple, plump, and clear.
These essential activities and healthy habits will help keep the cellular activity beneath your skin humming along, which will result in visible, positive changes in the appearance of your skin—but they are just the foundation. Keeping your face clean and moisturized, avoiding allergens and processed foods as much as you can, and restraining the urge to pick at blemishes are a just few daily practices that will help you look your best. If you have the means and the time, I recommend getting facials four times a year at a trusted salon that uses high-quality and, preferably, natural products. Facials not only feel great, but they have a cumulative benefit for your skin, particularly if you suffer from any chronic skin conditions. Consider them a well-earned reward for aging!