Though we've never met anyone who yearns for a stress-filled day, some people do wear their stress like a badge of honor. Unfortunately, those medals come in the form of a dull, lifeless complexion. According to dermatologist Sonia Badreshia-Bansal, MD, clinical instructor at the University of California San Francisco, "stress makes any skin condition worse, including the aging process."
It can dehydrate the skin, magnify lines and wrinkles and impair the cell renewal process. Stress also makes us smoke more, drink more and exercise less -- none of which is good for your face. If getting rid of the source of stress isn't an option, try meditation. You can get several guided meditation apps on your cell phone.
We'd like to think the whole world has given up cigarettes, but the truth is, a lot of women still smoke. Besides being the number-one cause of lung cancer, smoking deprives the skin of oxygen and causes skin damage. "Smoking is directly toxic to all of our organs, including our skin and the blood vessels that feed it," says dermatologist Doris Day, MD, author of Forget the Facelift.
Not only does it accelerate aging, it increases a person's risk for skin cancer and slows down healing. The good news is, just as you can restore lung capacity by giving up smokes, you can bring your complexion back to health. "I can see the difference within a matter of weeks," says Day.
Sun on Your Skin
You might think all those hours at your desk excuses you from daily sunscreen. But that's not the case, says Day. The sun's effects are cumulative, and people with skin that tans or burns easily are more susceptible to short-term damage. If you compare two people who are the same age -- one who wears sunscreen and one who doesn't -- the sunbather will have more visible signs of aging, like age spots, broken blood vessels, wrinkles, sagging and precancerous lesions.
Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 15 SPF every day. But note that wearing SPF does not give you permission to tan to your heart's content. A tan is, by definition, skin damage. Cover up instead.
Sugar is not the way to a sweeter complexion. Eating a steady diet of refined carbohydrates and sweets can lead to loss of elasticity in the skin. When your blood sugar spikes, the extra sugar in your bloodstream can attach to proteins in the skin and destroy collagen and elastin -- building blocks that keep our skin strong and supple.
This breakdown can lead to wrinkles and sagging. Choose whole grains instead of the white stuff. If you can't resist a bagel, adding protein to the meal can help keep your sugar levels from soaring and possibly do less skin damage.
Sun in Your Eyes
Incognito actresses and hungover musicians aren't the only people who need a nice pair of shades. Most of us neglect the eye area when applying sunscreen, says Day, so protective eyewear is key. Because the skin around the eyes is so delicate, that's where the first signs of aging show up. Sun damage can exacerbate fine lines caused by smiling and scowling. Plus, says Day, melanoma -- a deadly form of skin cancer -- can occur in the eyes. Look for sunglasses that protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
With so many skin care products out there, how are you supposed to know which ones to use? According to all the dermatologists we consulted, every woman's anti-aging arsenal should be equipped with retinoid, a vitamin-A derivative that can actually reverse the signs of aging. In just four to six weeks, it can reduce fine lines, even out skin discoloration, make the skin smoother and unclog pores.
Though prescription-strength retinoids work best, says Boston-based dermatologist Jeffrey Dover, MD, you will also see results from the weaker, over-the-counter version known as retinol. Sunlight can deactivate the ingredient, so use only at night. People with sensitive skin may not be able to tolerate it. Apply to a small area of the skin first to make sure you don't have a reaction.
Lack of Sleep
There's a reason it's called beauty rest. When someone says you look tired, you don't have to read between the lines to figure out what they really mean is old. According to Badreshia-Bansal, sleep gives our skin a much-needed break from environmental and psychological stress. "This is when the reparative work of cells occurs. Sleep relaxes the facial muscles and allows the layers of your skin to rejuvenate," she explains. There is one major caveat, though. "If you sleep in the same position every night, you can cause sleep creases. We see them all the time," says Dover. Prevent them by sleeping on your back.
Too much partying can be a dead giveaway of your age. Drinking on regular basis can be aging. Not only is it dehydrating, but heavy drinking can also affect our absorption of nutrients that keep our skin supple. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol also keeps us from getting a good night's sleep. People who get flushed after a glass of wine are susceptible to another aging effect: broken capillaries and uneven skin. If you flush or blush easily, Day recommends soy-based skin cream with calming ingredients like niacinamide. As for drinking, keep it to less than a serving a day.
Tough love is not the best tactic when it comes to your skin care routine. "Everyone thinks that outer layer is just there to be exfoliated off. It's not," says Day. It protects us from germs, pollution and UV rays -- especially in fair-skinned people. Over-exfoliating and washing with scalding-hot water can strip away oils that form a protective barrier and even cause microscopic tears in the skin. Use lukewarm water and massage your face gently, especially when washing the delicate area around the eyes. Products with retinols or salicylic or glycolic acid exfoliate the skin; you don't need a daily exfoliating scrub on top of that. Once a week is plenty.
Exercise is the closest thing we've got to a fountain of youth. Studies have shown that physical activity can reverse the aging process all the way down to our genes. It rejuvenates muscle tone, reduces the effects of stress on our immune system and improves circulation and blood flow, all of which freshens our complexion, says Dover. Besides a healthy glow, it also promotes the cell renewal process. That's important because, as we age, our skin's ability to repair itself slows down.
Feed your face with a Mediterranean-style diet, says Day. According to a study published in the journal Nutrition Reviews, olive oil, fish, yogurt and colorful fruits and vegetables may help protect against sun damage and premature aging. Carotenoids, a type of antioxidant found in orange and red produce (think carrots, pumpkin, watermelon and tomatoes), accumulate in the skin where, say researchers, they serve as a first line of protection.
Research shows that some antioxidants, when taken in pill form, actually increase the risk of cancer, so get your nutrients from the source instead. And don't be afraid of fats, says Dover. "Diets devoid of fat may lead to dry, listless skin," he says. Fill up on good fats, such as those found in avocadoes, nuts, olive oil and fish.
Your face isn't the only place that shows signs of aging. If you're trying to figure out how old someone is, take a look at their hands. One thing that can really make our hands look older is obsessive washing.
Washing your hands compulsively strips away the outer layers that protect us from germs in the first place. This can be particularly problematic in the dry months. Germy hands can only infect us if we transfer those viruses to our eyes, nose or mouth. "If you don't want to get sick, don't touch your face," says Day. If your hands are still dry, apply lotion immediately after to lock in moisture.