Genes vs Routine: How Much of Your Skin Aging Can You Actually Control?

If you’re curious about how well you will age, and wondering what you can do to slow down the onslaught of lines and spots, you’re not alone. There’s a reason the anti-aging market is a multibillion-dollar industry. We all want to live long, happy, healthy lives. But we don’t want the long part to exactly show through on our faces.

While genetics do play a large role in how quickly you will age, recent research has started to show that the habits you develop and choices you make throughout life might be even more telling than investigating when and where mom and dad got their first wrinkles.

“Several factors such as the risk of discoloration, stretch marks, varicose veins and the level of skin sagging are all related to our genetic makeup,” notes dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, Co-Director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, D.C. Just like your family risk for a medical condition, your skin also has a genetic predisposition. But the same way healthy lifestyle choices will reduce your risk for things like heart disease and diabetes, you also have control over how your skin ages.In fact, research has found that up to 40 percent of factors that age us are non-genetic.

Scientists at Case Western Reserve have demonstrated in multiple studies how our lifestyle can change our destiny. To investigate if habits can trump genetics, researchers published two studies, in 2009 and 2013, that compared a total of 144 pairs of identical twins and were able to conclude a few things; most importantly, that smoking, sun exposure, as well as other factors such as BMI, marital status and anti-depressant use, can age us, genes be damned.

The eye-opening conclusions showed that the longer one twin smoked, the older she appeared. In fact, it only took 5 years of smoking to make one twin look older than her chronological age (and her sister), and every 10 years of smoking added another 2.5 years to her perceived age. More time in the sun also added years to the twins with worse sun habits, and conversely, those who used sunscreen looked younger.

Courtesy of Case Western Reserve UniversitySusan (right) smoked for 16 years and likes to sunbathe, spending as much time as she can in the sun. On the other hand, younger-looking twin Jeanne (left) has made it a point to get as little UV exposure as possible. Age: 61

A major aging factor that wasn’t specifically examined in these studies is stress. Stress is no good for your beauty—from causing acne to hair loss. The stress hormone cortisol also breaks down collagen, and less collagen means weaker skin and more wrinkles, so much so that according to dermatologist Amy Wechsler, author of “The Mind-Beauty Connection,” stress can make you look three to six years older.

But here’s some good news: A July 2014 study from UC San Francisco is the first to show that although stress accelerates cellular aging, a healthy lifestyle—specifically eating healthy foods, exercising and getting quality sleep—can reduce the damaging effects on a cellular level.

“The study participants who exercised, slept well and ate well had less telomere shortening than the ones who didn’t maintain healthy lifestyles, even when they had similar levels of stress,” said lead author Eli Puterman, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at UCSF.

Telomeres—the protective tips on the end of chromosomes that affect cell aging—get shorter and weaker when your cells divide. This wear and tear on your DNA has been associated with skin aging, on top of a variety of diseases including heart disease and cancer. Genetics play a huge role in determining the length of your telomeres and the rate at which they shorten, but both sun damage and stress have also been connected with accelerating this rate. In the study, women who reported stressful life events and engaged in low levels of healthy behaviors had greater telomere shortening than those who experienced stress but maintained healthy habits.

Courtesy of Case Western Reserve UniversityBrenda (left) has smoked half a pack of cigarettes a day for 14 years, making her skin (and under-eye area especially) saggier and more wrinkled than her sister Barb (right), who also reported spending way less time in the sun than her older-looking sister. Age: 52
twins study

“If you choose to eat poorly, smoke and routinely get tan, then no matter how great your skin ‘genes’ are, it’s going to catch up with you,” notes Dr. Tanzi. “On the other hand, if you are looking at your mother and thinking that she looks older than her actual age, then act NOW to change the future.”

Courtesy of OlaySara (right) used an Olay Pro-X regimen for eight weeks. Beth (left) did not follow a regular skincare regimen.
Olay twins skin study

If you’ve ever wondered if your skincare regimen is actually doing anything to prevent the signs of aging, Olay researchers recently conducted a twin study to show that quality skincare can alter your skin destiny for the better. Research lead Joe Kaczvinsky, principal scientist at Proctor and Gamble, and his team studied 21 sets of identical female twins between 20 and 53-years-old. One twin in each pair used the Olay Pro-X skin regimen (either Intensive Wrinkle Protocol or Tone Correcting Protocol, depending on skin concern) for eight weeks, while the other maintained her normal skincare habits, which in the case of the non-treated twin above, meant inconsistently using products and not always washing her face at night. Each protocol included a moisturizer with SPF 30+, either a brightening or wrinkle-smoothing cream, and either a spot-fading or deep wrinkle treatment. At the conclusion of the study, 100 percent of twins using the Olay regimen saw improvement in skin look and feel—and 100 percent of the other twins were jealous of how young and glowy their sisters looked.

“The good news is that if you weren’t born with perfect skin, there are some healthy steps to take now that pay big dividends in the future,” says Tanzi. Developing healthy habits—and cutting out youth-killers like cigarette smoking and unprotected sun exposure—will keep you young both inside and out, whether or not you have “good skin” genes. “Eat well, exercise, sleep and use good skincare products,” she suggests. “As the years go on, it becomes obvious who is caring for their skin and who isn’t.”

The time to be proactive is now. Wear sunscreen every day. Quit smoking. Manage stress. Exercise regularly. Get more sleep. Use quality skincare. Don’t just accept your skin destiny: control it.

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