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The Science of Skincare: Can We Really Slow Aging?
At some point in our lives, many of us come to the realization that – gasp! – we aren’t ageless. For some, this unwelcome wakeup call may be triggered by a glance in the mirror, perhaps revealing the first signs of "crow’s feet," or laugh lines that are visible long after we stop laughing. Many women take good care of their skin from the time they are young, but others of us wait until the first signs of age propel us into action. This is when many people start the skincare research process — or at least the skin care product purchasing process.
Protecting one’s skin from the sun is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to keep our skin youthful and healthy. But what about "anti-aging" emollients, scrubs, creams, and cleansers?
There are literally thousands of tempting options on the shelves these days for slowing the aging process. It seems like every other week there is a new ad for a cutting-edge product, promising to remove the signs of age and turn back the clock. To make matters worse for the consumer, some products come in diamond-encrusted packaging, cost hundreds of dollars, or use science-y-sounding (often made-up) words in their names.
But is it really possible to slow aging? What processes are going on that can make skin look, duller, thinner, and more wrinkled over the years? If certain skincare products work, how do they work, and how can we figure out what is truly helpful from all the hype?
To help us understand some of these issues, we talked to two well-known experts in the field. Melanie Grossman, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology, College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. She is affiliated with New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and has a private practice in Manhattan. Monica Halem, MD is also a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Columbia University.
First, let's look at the "architecture" of skin, and how the body’s largest organ functions in the first place, and then go on to consider whether it is possible to slow skin’s aging process with skin care products and if so, which ones (hint: they’re more likely found in the kitchen, not the bathroom cabinet).
Skin 101: The Basics of the Largest Organ
Skin is a multitasking organ. That's right, it is an organ that needs to be fed and cared for like any other and serves a variety of important functions. Skin's most obvious role is as an infection-preventing barrier between the body and the outside environment. It regulates body temperature, water and electrolyte balance, houses the millions of nerve endings that give us our sense of touch, as well as our ability to detect pressure, respond to pain, and sense texture. The skin also synthesizes Vitamin D when the ultraviolet rays of the sun hit it, making it an important part of how the body creates and uses this essential vitamin.
The skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis, dermis, and fat layer.(1) The epidermis, the outermost layer, is largely made up of cells called keratinocytes, which are thicker on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Cells that produce melanin (melanocytes) are also in the epidermis and give skin its various colors and protect it from the sun’s damaging rays.
The epidermis acts as a barrier, protecting the body from foreign invaders (bacteria and viruses). The dermis houses all the important goodies, like many different kinds of nerve endings, sweat glands, blood vessels, oil glands, and hair follicles. It is made up of hardy yet flexible tissue, comprised of elastin, collagen, and fibrillin (some of which are frequently targeted with skin products). The fat layer, which naturally thins with age, lies beneath the outer two layers of skin and helps keep the body warm, serves as padding (some of us have more than others), and acts as an energy store.