Believe it or not, your skin won't necessarily show signs of aging in a linear fashion, as you progress from one birthday to the next. How fast your skin ages depends on intrinsic factors, which include genetic influences and your overall health, and extrinsic factors, such as getting excess sun exposure, smoking and even sipping through a straw frequently.
"Approximately 30 percent of how you age is genetically determined, which means you have a great deal of control over how your skin looks over time," says Dr. Doris J. Day, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Medical Center and author of "Forget the Facelift." "You really don't have to look your age: Your skin's health and resiliency can be decades younger than your actual age."
The key is to sidestep or mitigate sneaky factors that can accelerate the skin's aging process. Here are five surprising culprits that can make your skin age faster than it should, with advice on how to deal with them:
Eating a Poor Diet
Consuming lots of highly processed or sugary foods can cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar and insulin, which can trigger chronic, low-grade inflammation at the cellular level. This hidden inflammation can in turn speed up skin aging through a process called glycation.
In a nutshell, here's how it works: Glucose (from carbohydrates and sugars) enters the bloodstream and attaches to protein molecules, including collagen (which provides structure to the skin), forming new molecules called advanced glycation end products,or AGEs, which are believed to degrade collagen and elastin (a protein that gives skin elasticity).
When this happens, collagen and elastin can become stiffer and less functional, which can theoretically cause skin to sag, wrinkle and look older than it should.
What to do: Cut back on simple carbs, which are quickly converted to blood sugar, and opt instead for lots of whole grains, vegetables and fruits. In particular, increase your intake of antioxidant-rich foods – such as berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, pineapple, papaya, red and green peppers and broccoli – because "antioxidants fight AGEs," Marmur says. The same is true of using skin-care products with antioxidant ingredients such as vitamins C and E, resveratrol, green tea and grapeseed.
Always Sleeping on the Same Side
You know that sleep is important if you want to look your best. After all, while you sleep, your body initiates the repair process for lots of different tissues in the body, including the skin.
But if you constantly sleep on the same side of your face, your facial skin will age more rapidly.It's like ironing a wrinkle into a pair of pants – in this case, you're mechanically wrinkling the skin by deforming the skin's collagen and impeding circulation to the skin, which makes the creases permanent.
What to do: In addition to carving out plenty of time for slumber, cultivate a habit of sleeping on your back or at least alternating sides.
Depression can show up on your face as well as in your disposition, for various reasons. For starters, when people are depressed, they may end up tensing specific facial muscles, grimacing or frowning, and these "negative facial expressions can become sort of etched into the skin in the form of fine lines and wrinkles," Day explains. Meanwhile, depression is associated with elevated cortisol levels, which can weaken collagen and cause a decrease in growth hormone synthesis, which inhibits the skin's ability to repair itself at night, Day adds. What's more, when people are depressed, they often don't eat, sleep, exercise or take care of their skin the way they should.
What to do: Take steps to improve your downbeat mood by exercising regularly, going for counseling and/or talking to your doctor about whether you'd benefit from taking an antidepressant or another therapy.
Repeatedly gaining and losing weight can cause your skin to continuously stretch and contract, which can take a toll on its elasticity, especially as you get older, Day warns. Besides leading to stretch marks and cellulite on your body, this expand-contract cycle can cause the skin on your face to sag and look older than it should.
What to do: Take steps to get and keep your weight in the normal range (with a body mass index of under 25; you can calculate yours here). Regular exercise can also help improve skin tone, and using products with ingredients like retinols and peptides can help reduce the appearance of stretch marks and improve the firmness and elasticity of your skin.
Using Certain Medications
Taking oral corticosteroids (for asthma, arthritis or other conditions) or applying them topically can decrease collagen and elastin, cause the skin to become thinner and make blood vessels prone to rupturing more easily, leading to broken capillaries. By contrast, certain antibiotics, ACE inhibitors and diuretics (for high blood pressure), and anti-seizure medications can cause photosensitivity, making your skin extra sensitive to sun damage.
What to do: Since stopping these medications is not an option, it's very important to be sun-smart. This means avoiding [exposure to] mid-day sun, wearing sun-protective clothing and using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day and reapplying it regularly. Using a retinoid cream at night can stimulate collagen production, which can in turn help offset thinning skin and other undesirable changes.
Being a Frequent Flyer
You may know that the sun's ultraviolet, or UV, rays are more intense at high altitudes, which is why your skin may burn more easily when you're in the mountains. It may surprise you to learn that you also get more UV exposure when you're on an airplane. So when you're flying, your skin has to contend with the double whammy of dehydration, thanks to the plane's dry air, and sun damage because UV rays penetrate the plane's windows.
The more frequently you fly, the more problematic these factors are for your skin, which may explain why flight attendants have an increased risk of melanoma, according to an analysis of five studies in the May-June 2006 issue of the Journal of Travel Medicine.
What to do: Bring a moisturizer with SPF on the plane (look for a 3-ounce tube or smaller), avoid alcohol and salty foods, and drink lots of water during the flight, Marmur advises. And if you're sitting next to the window, pull the shade down.