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Published January 04, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Protecting aging skin

A couple of weeks ago, my 4-year-old son Grant took a close look at his great-aunt Anni, who was kindly babysitting him for the day. “Why do you have those lines on your face, Anni?”

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com blogger, INFORUM

A couple of weeks ago, my 4-year-old son Grant took a close look at his great-aunt Anni, who was kindly babysitting him for the day. “Why do you have those lines on your face, Anni?”

Thankfully, she laughed and didn’t send him packing. “These lines mean I’m old, Grant, and hopefully, you’ll get to be old too,” she replied.

I hope Grant does live to be old and with lines of wisdom, expression and character like Aunt Anni. It is all up to him.

Those lines, of course, are wrinkles, and are due to two different forces. Intrinsic forces are the things beyond our control, our genetic makeup. For example, someone of Scandinavian background may have fairer, thinner skin that wrinkles more easily than someone of Mediterranean descent.

More pigment in the skin means more natural defense from UV light. Also, look to your parents for a foreshadow of what your skin might look like in a few years. We have some control over extrinsic forces: nutrition, smoking, pollution, sleep, stress and sun exposure. Aunt Anni lived in Southern California for many years, and though not a sun-worshipper, she got lots of incidental exposure on her Norwegian-Danish skin.

Repeated facial expressions can cause wrinkles and fine lines over time. Just like a piece of paper that’s been folded too many times, the lines can become etched in, almost like a scar. This is why the areas around our eyes, foreheads and mouths show wrinkles first. The underlying muscles of facial expression have a direct attachment to the skin, unlike anywhere else in the body. This is why injections like Botox Cosmetic work to reduce wrinkles since they relax the muscle activity underneath the skin.

Regardless of the cause, the aging process works like this: The outermost cells in the epidermis thin and lose some of their protective barrier function, causing the skin to lose moisture. Oil glands also slow down, contributing to dryness. Underneath the epidermis, collagen and elastin fibers break down along with the “jello layer” of smooth hyalurinic acid. Deeper still, we lose fat storage in our cells, so there is less plumping of the skin. Underneath it all, our bony structures also become thinner, so there is less framework to support our skin.

So what to do? Really work on what you can control. Wonderful food with lots of colorful vegetables, low-fat protein and whole grains translates to better health and great skin.

Make sure you are hydrated. Sleep well. Commit to using sunscreen daily. You’ll need a dollop about the size of a quarter to cover your face, neck, chest and hands. Don’t rely on your makeup to give you adequate protection. Wear sunglasses as much as practical when outdoors or driving to protect your corneas and the delicate skin around your eyes. Plan ahead for extended outdoor adventures, even in the winter. Make it a goal to reapply sunscreen every hour, and think about clothing with built-in UV protection.

Check out www.sunprecautions.com. The RIT Dye company makes a product called SunGuard that you can use to treat your own clothing for extra protection.

Beyond sunscreen, there are two categories of topical wrinkle-fighters that are strongly supported by science: retinoids and anti-oxidants. Retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives that reverse the effects of sun damage, including wrinkles, rough texture and discoloration. Names for products in this family include tretinoin (generic,) Retin-A, Refissa, Differin, Atralin and Tazorac. They can cause some peeling and irritation, but usually the skin acclimates in 3-6 weeks.

Retinol, retinyl palmitate andretinaldehyde are over-the-counter cousins that have less benefit, but aren’t as irritating. They aren’t very stable, so must be packaged in a metal pump tube or bottle, or they will have minimal activity. Skinceuticals, ROC, and Neutrogena make good retinol products and are a good place to start before moving to the prescription retinoids

Anti-oxidants don’t actually treat wrinkles but they help to prevent cellular damage caused by free radicals. Vitamins A, C and E along with green tea extract (ECGC,) idebenone and coffeeberry have been shown to improve skin quality and minimize breakdown over time. Vitamin C packs an extra punch as it stimulates collagen too.

There may not be a fountain of youth, but there is a little bit of hope in a jar, and an eternal spring found through a healthy lifestyle that we are in charge of. Maybe my Grant will make good choices and control some of the aging influences. But I still wish him a few wise lines that come with grace.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.