(This information comes to you from Kristi M Sanders, MD, MS at Genesis Health Care in Etna, NH.)
Americans spend more than $33 billion annually on cosmetics and skin care products. In this blog post, we’re going to actually get to the root of the problem.
Why does skin and “skin appendages” age?
There are 3 types of aging in these tissues:
- Biological aging – A result of our individual DNA affects the rate at which skin wrinkles and hair and nails thin.
- Environmental aging – Daily exposures to wind, sun, smoke, stress, and extremes of weather damages lipids, proteins and DNA, results in stress to the cells and leads to premature aging.
- Mechanical aging – Results from the effects of repeated behaviors such as frowning, smiling, squinting, over-washing and bruising to the outside of our skin.
Estrogen has also been known to be a factor in the aging process. Loss of estrogen (e.g. menopause) decreases connective tissue turnover, collagen content, and skin thickness.
How Does Skin Age?
Skin is composed of 3 layers: epidermis (outer), dermis (middle), and subcutaneous (the cushioning layer under the collagen.)
Skin is our largest organ system and is responsible for the following, important functions:
- Heat and cold regulation
- Water and fat storage
- Prevention of loss of water
- Superficial “sensation”
- Acts as a barrier preventing bacteria from entering our system
As skin, hair and nails age, they lose feeling, function, and color. Loss of this moisture barrier results in increased water loss across the “skin barrier.” Loss of collagen diminishes elasticity and increases extensibility. Aging blood vessels and glands result in fragility, leading to easier skin tearing, poor healing, dryness, itching, and hair loss. Loss of keratinocytes (the cells that produce the outer barrier layer of skin) thins the skin and makes it look dull and feel rough. Additionally, aging increases the melanin in the skin, resulting in darkening of skin and nails.
Melanin colors the skin and is produced by melanocytes, which are located in deeper layers of the skin and are activated by sun and inflammatory processes. Due to aging, melanocytes are not as easily shed by the skin surface, causing unevenness of color and increased color changes.
Here are some of the skin issues we face, as we grow older:
Karatoses are crusty, rough skin patches found mostly on sun-exposed areas and can be very small and not seen, but felt, and larger and noticeable. They come in a variety of colors including brown, red, pink and tan, and are an indication of skin damage and are the most common precursor to all skin cancers; 10% progress to “squamous cell” cancer. Skin cancer must be considered if you have a rough, dry, brownish patch. Many topical treatments for karatoses are on the market; surgical removal or freezing are also options. Decreasing sun exposure by staying covered or using sunscreen will help delay the occurrence as well as other skin-damaging effects such as wrinkles. Skin cancers are not affected by hormone use.
Hair loss is due to hair follicle aging. Furthermore, a switch from the estrogen dominance of youth to the relative androgen dominance of menopause (if hormone therapy is withheld) affects hair growth and results in typical male pattern hair loss and growth of facial hair. Loss of estrogen also affects fine hairs, resulting in loss of leg, arm, and pubic hair.
Oxidative stress is physiological stress on the body that is caused by the cumulative damage done by free radicals inadequately neutralized by antioxidants and that is held to be associated with aging. The oxygen all around us, plus the food we eat and other elements of our environment generate byproducts, including “free radicals,” electronically unstable molecules that can attack their neighbors in a chain-reaction-like process.
Research has shown that oxidative stressors add to loss of function and integrity of connective tissue, producing hair, skin, and nail changes. Oxidative stress increases with smoking, loss of hormones, poor fruit and vegetable intake, and stress. These effects are one of the rationales for hormone therapy and the many anti-oxidants available over-the-counter.
What can be done?
Eliminate offensive stressors: smoking, too much or too little exercise, scrubbing, over-washing, sun damage, ignoring medical problems, dehydration, and lack of hormones.
Estrogen therapy has been shown in some studies to improve the quality of hair, skin, and nails, as well as improving the condition known as “dry eye.”
Genestein, one of the components of soy products may also help.
Of course, good nutrition (less meats, more veggies and fiber, etc.) helps as well.