What does “anti-aging” REALLY mean?


We are bombarded with the term “anti-aging” and from what I hear from clients, friends and family, people are starting to feel this is a trite strategy to get people to buy the myriad of “anti-aging” products and services available in the market today.  I think people feel this way because “aging is unavoidable”.  Aging is a natural process.  No living organism has ever reversed the signs of aging.  Aging happens to all of us, so why should we succumb to the media and spend so much money on empty promises?

Let’s first take a look at what “aging” means, scientifically speaking.  According to Wikipedia, aging in humans refers to a multidimensional process of physical, psychological and social change.  Age is measured chronologically, however the term “aging” goes beyond our age.  There is “universal aging” (age changes that all people share), “probabilistic aging” (age changes that may happen to some, but not all people as they grow older, including diseases), and “biological aging” (an organism’s physical state as it ages).  Chronological age does not correlate with functional age, i.e. two people may be of the same age, but differ in their mental and physical capacities. So, when we talk about “anti-aging”, what are we really talking about?

In biology, senescence is the state or process of aging.  After a period of near perfect renewal (in humans, between 20 and 35 years of age), senescence is characterized by the declining ability to respond to stress and increased risk of disease. This currently irreversible series of changes inevitably ends in death.  Aging is the major cause of mortality in developed countries, with approximately 100,000 people worldwide dying each day of age-related causes; therefore, scientists consider aging a disease.  As genes that have an effect on aging are discovered, aging is increasingly being regarded as potentially “treatable”.


So why, then, in this technologically sophisticated world haven’t we figured out how to stop aging, specifically skin aging?  Skin aging occurs from both intrinsic and extrinsic factors.  Intrinsic factors include our genetic makeup, that is our skin color, texture and elasticity we inherited and which cannot be modified. Extrinsic factors are factors we can control such as sun damage, smoking, sleeping habits, diet and exercise.  While there is not much we can do about our genetic makeup, there are many things we can do about those behaviors that accelerate our probabilistic and functional aging processes.

Sun damage – No single factor is more important to prevent aging than avoiding excess sun exposure. Ultraviolet light breaks down the elastin and collagen in our skin, causing brown discoloration, roughness and thinning of the skin, loss of tone, dilated blood vessels, and ultimately wrinkles.  The first and most important anti-aging ingredient is a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF30 or above used properly.  “Used properly” means  applying enough and as often as every 2 hours when in direct sunlight.

Exercise – Exercise facilitates blood flow and helps bring nutrients to the skin.  

Smoking – Smoking deprives our skin of oxygen, releases damaging oxidizing free radicals and causes wrinkles, dullness, and sallowness. Not to mention other disruptions in the body that reflect through the skin such as acne and other inflammatory lesions.antiaging3Diet – Gaining weight causes excess heavy fat to develop on our face. This will stretch our skin and pull down your cheeks and jowls, aging our face. A low-glycemic diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is healthy for our body and skin.  Research has shown that sugary or high glycemic carbohydrate foods contribute to aging.  Also, drinking alcohol causes dehydration and can lead to damage of our skin over time, and it can lead to unsightly red blood vessels on our face that quickly age us. Optimize your immune system by eating fresh, organic produce and drinking plenty of water to hydrate the cells. Along with the proper topical skin care, whole-body wellness is crucial when developing an age-prevention strategy.

Stress –  Chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol can damage our organs including our skin. Meditate, exercise, travel, keep a journal. Do whatever it takes to reduce the stress pounding on you.  Stress also causes inflammatory conditions such as acne and rosacea, which in turn adds to the aging process.

Sleep – Do you have a restful  beauty sleep every night? Sleeping 8 hours a day helps the body recover and heal. Read more about how sleep benefits the skin here.  Additionally, sleeping on your face or on your side causes wrinkles overnight. The weight of your head on your pillow can also limit the blood flow, depriving your skin of blood and oxygen overnight. Night after night this can lead to permanent wrinkles. Try to train yourself to sleep on your back. Easier said than done, but give it a try!

Squinting. Whether you’re squinting to avoid the sun or to see your computer monitor, repeatedly contracting your eye muscles will cause permanent wrinkles over time. Wear dark sun glasses every day, and be sure there’s no glare on your computer screen at work or at home.  Eye massage, like acupressure, can help relieve some of the straining from squinting.

Make-up and moisturizing – Wearing too much makeup can actually harm your skin by clogging pores and causing excess dryness. Thick foundations and shimmery makeup make you look much older especially if it cracks or settles into existing fine lines and wrinkles. As you age, a lighter touch and natural shades are most flattering.  But because our skin is under constant assault from the elements — wind rain, humidity, hot, dry weather and arctic air all damage our skin leading to wrinkles and dullness, wearing some makeup helps protect the skin from these elements.  However, to fight back some of the damage, applying a facial moisturizer plumps up skin, reducing the appearance of fine lines.

Now, for the sake of this blog, let’s forget about anti-aging altogether.  Instead, let’s focus on minimizing age-related signs of both intrinsic and extrinsic aging. Our true biological age is determined not by our years, but by the state of our body’s structure and function, as well as our emotional and psychological well-being. That means that the more the body is supplied with healthy nutrients to protect cells from environmental damage, the younger it will look and feel at any age.  In the cosmetic world, there are seven signs of aging that are traditionally accepted.

1.    Fine lines and wrinkles

2.    Uneven skin texture

3.    Uneven skin tone

4.    Surface dullness

5.    Enlarged pores

6.    Age spots

7.    Loss of elasticity and firmness

And as we mentioned, some of them are genetically-determined.  However, research has shown that the following ingredients can actually play an important role in the intrinsic factors that affect our skin aging.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) – These are a group of acids—glycolic being the most popular because of its smaller molecular size. Skin cell turnover rates slow dramatically as a person ages, which is why older skin has a drier, rougher look and feel. This dryness also impedes the ability of the skin to absorb moisture and active ingredients. The primary function of AHAs is to help increase the exfoliation of dead skin cells to reveal a younger, healthier, more hydrated complexion. Exfoliation of dead skin cells gives immediate visibly younger-looking skin.

AntioxidantsThese powerful free-radical fighters are in almost every “anti-aging” formulation. Antioxidants help to stabilize free radicals by donating one of their electrons. Free radicals are known to damage healthy skin cells.  While single antioxidants have been promoted as the most potent, a complex of antioxidants is often needed, working synergistically for optimal results. Some of the most popular antioxidants found in anti-aging formulations are vitamin C, co-enzyme Q10, grape seed, zinc, lutein, ferulic acid, green tea and pine bark extract. Glutathione is the master antioxidant of the group, said to be the leader in promoting the redox theory (the cascading effect of all antioxidants working together) in the nutritional world.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) – A powerful pro-hormone that accelerates natural anti-aging functions, DHEA is known as the “youth hormone” because it is abundant in young skin and decreases with age. It acts as a defense against environmental aggressors that can age skin by boosting immunity while increasing the efficacy of other actives.

Essential fatty acids – It is a well-documented fact that inflammation in the body is the cause of most disease and cell deterioration. This is true for the aging of the skin and its ability to repair itself. Omega-3 essential fatty acids taken both systemically and topically through anti-aging skin care has been shown to help not only reduce the wrinkling of the skin, but also to aid in the prevention of eczema and psoriasis. As powerful as naturally occurring ceramides, these fats hold the cells of the epidermis together to reinforce the skin’s protective barrier while helping to reduce its inflammatory process.

Hyaluronic acid – Young, healthy skin has a dewy and moist look and feel. Hyaluronic acid is a sugar molecule found naturally in the skin that increases its ability to hold moisture. Capable of holding 1,000 times its weight in water, hyaluronic acid is found in almost every quality anti-aging product. Available as part of serums or creams, this ingredient can be used by even oilier skin to help retain moisture. Remember: Some forms of hyaluronic acid are purer than others.

Skin lighteners – Nothing gives away age more easily than those unsightly brown spots on the face and hands, which is the reason they are known as “age spots.” They are the result of cumulative sun exposure, but may also result from some medication, such as birth control pills, or increased estrogen during pregnancy. Hydroquinone is one of the most popular anti-aging ingredients. Available over-the-counter in percentages up to 2%, it can reduce the development of melanin in the melanocytes. In combination with exfoliating the skin and diligent use of daily sunscreen, hydroquinone is very effective in helping to reduce pigmentation. Results take 30–60 days. Physicians can offer a combination of tretinoin and hydroquinone at higher percentages. Although hydroquinone is effective, it should not be used for more than 90 days, because it is metabolized through the liver. A good follow-up routine should include any of the holistic skin lighteners, such as arbutin, bearberry, licorice, rice bran, kojic acid and vitamin C.

Niacinamide – Niacinamide is a water-soluble B-3 vitamin found naturally in the body. Forms of vitamin B-3 that are typically found in skin care products are niacin amide, nicotinic acid and nicotinate esters. Clinical studies show a range of benefits, including reduction in fine lines and wrinkles and pore size, and decreased appearance of hyperpigmentation.

Peptides – Loss of elasticity and firmness lead many women to stand before the mirror and hold up their faces.antiaging1Peptides are natural or synthetic compounds containing two or more linked amino acids. Peptides of particular interest to the cosmetic industry include pal-KTTKS, or Matrixyl.  In in vitro studies, these ingredients seem to stimulate collagen production and reduce excess dermal glycosaminoglycans (GAGs); the same qualities attributed to retinoids.

Probiotic lactobacillus – A proven anti-aging active in the health care industry to help increase the body’s immune system, probiotics are now being used in skin care formulations to increase the strength of the skin. Probiotics are friendly bacteria that help the skin maintain balance and improve its ability to protect against environmental damage. By helping to protect the cell membrane, skin remains more elastic and resilient.

Retinoids – A derivative of vitamin A, retinoic acid is the functional form of vitamin A in the skin and is considered to be the gold standard anti-aging ingredient. In vitro studies demonstrate retinoid-induced changes in the expression of the genes relevant to dermal matrix production, epidermal differentiation and melanin production. Retinoids stimulate the production of collagen and decrease the production of dermal GAGs, which are known to destroy collagen production. Retinoids are also known to increase the production of epidermal hyaluronic acid.

Something to keep in mind is that these ingredients do work, but they don’t work overnight.  With everything we said about aging (we start aging at age 20), it takes years to see the effects of aging (some see it sooner due to extrinsic factors).  Unless you want to undergo the knife, start early, be consistent and use ingredients properly, while engaging in healthy activities, to delay, diminish or reverse the signs of aging.  Even if you believe nothing can be done, or it’s too late, it is NEVER too late to stop and potentially reverse some of the damage.  It’s not about stopping the aging process, but to look and feel and live our best no matter at what age.


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