Your Skin Tone Could Be Aging You as Much as 12 Years

Take advantage of the latest skincare science and new hero ingredients to help you keep your youthful radiance.

get_radiant_skinphoto credit: shutterstock

Wouldn’t it be great if having clear, radiant skin were as easy as pushing the automatic touch-up button on your digital camera? Though nothing in the name of beauty is ever that easy, scan the drugstore skincare shelves today and you’ll notice more products than ever targeting problems such as age spots, redness, uneven patches, dullness—or, simply put, skin that has lost its radiance.

“Uneven tone on your face can age you twice as much as the lines around your eyes,” says Paul Matts, research fellow with Olay skin care. In fact, skin tone can add or subtract as many as 12 years to or from people’s perception of your age, according to the paper that Matts and a team of biologists published in the November 2006 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior. Add to that the Global Truth in Beauty Survey published in 2007 by Clinique, in which women around the world, from Australians to South Africans, ranked uneven tone higher than lines as their biggest skincare challenge—and you could say patchy skin is the new wrinkle. Before we can tell you how to get radiant skin, it’s important to know what’s causing your uneven skin tone.

What makes skin lose its radiance?

We know that drinking plenty of water and having a balanced diet can help skin tone, but we can’t stop the march of time. “Most women start seeing tonal changes in their skin by their early 30s,” says dermatologist Jean-François Tremblay, the medical director at MédIme, an aesthetic medical institute in Montreal. And, during your 40s, skin can lose elasticity and lustre. If you’re a sun worshipper, smoker or city dweller (where pollution is high) or are chronically stressed, you may notice dilated blood vessels, brown spots and dullness (which result from a loss of collagen) even earlier than that, according to Tremblay. Collagen adds structure to the face, but when free radicals caused by a lifetime of exposure to sunlight and pollution break it down, it stops reflecting light, making skin look dull.

Here’s what happens when you go outside without sunscreen: UV rays initially dry the skin but eventually they change the DNA of your pigment cells, says Tremblay, causing them to overproduce melanin (brown spots) by middle age. Too much sunshine can also break down collagen and dilate dermal blood vessels, turning today’s tan into a web of spider veins and rosy patches across your cheeks and nose by the time you’re in your 50s and 60s.

Traffic exhaust fumes and other pollutants cause damage, too. When airborne particulates penetrate sensitive skin, they may dilate tiny blood vessels in the face and set off an inflammatory reaction, making skin itchy and red.

Are we done yet? No! Hormones can also do a number on your skin. Pregnant women may experience increased pigmentation in areas where they’ve sustained sun damage, or they may develop melasma, also called the “pregnancy mask” due to the patchy, dark pigmentation that shows up on the cheeks, forehead and chin. Meanwhile, post-menopausal women experience low sebum production after their estrogen levels drop, which can make skin dry and sallow. This is also the time when a constellation of age spots may appear.

Products to get radiant skin

Thankfully, scientists and skincare companies are scrambling to meet the demands of consumers for whom healthy-looking skin and even pigmentation is a top priority.

  • Red, irritated skin: For flushing that is persistent, but not as severe as rosacea, skincare companies, including Dermalogica and Aveeno, use ingredients such as soy and white tea. These extracts are gentle and effective at keeping inflammation and redness at bay, while daily use of a sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher has been shown to keep capillary walls strong and leak-free. “I also tell my patients with reactive skin to avoid all exfoliants and at-home microdermabrasion kits,” says Tremblay. “They will only irritate skin further.”
  • Dullness: So long as your skin isn’t reactive, exfoliation is still the best way to keep your skin looking fresh. Try Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant (a gentle scrub with a skin-brightening complex of rice bran, salicylic acid, green tea, grapefruit and licorice) or Yves Rocher Inositol Végétal Total Radiance Treatment (a daily moisturizer with lemon AHA that activates the surface of the skin’s cells). For those who prefer a visit to the dermatologist, prescription retinoid creams help stimulate collagen production and improve the complexion. These creams contain retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative.
  • Sun damage/brown spots: The latest creams designed to help with age spots contain ingredients that block the formation of melanin, the pigment responsible for age spots, before they appear. In 2006, Procter & Gamble unveiled the Olay Definity skincare line with N-acetyl glucosamine and niacinamide (vitamin B3), two ingredients that work together to help normalize pigment overproduction in UV-damaged skin cells.

Today, many companies have incorporated melanin blockers into their age-spot treatments, daily moisturizers and nighttime skin care. Products in Vichy’s Bi-White line contain procystein, a molecule that is purported to stop skin-damaging free radicals in their tracks and reduce melanin production by almost 25 percent.

Meanwhile, Estée Lauder, Shiseido, Dior and RoC are all making full use of a range of other ingredients, including stabilized vitamin C, licorice and mulberry extract, that are said to prevent the appearance of age spots. (These extracts are thought to be healthier alternatives to hydroquinone, which is a long-used skin-lightening ingredient that can cause skin irritation.)

There are several options from the dermatologist. “Mild age spots are best treated with a prescription retinoid cream,” says Tremblay. But “the most highly pigmented spots disappear with fractional lasers like The Pixel. It’s safe on all skin tones—white, black, Asian and Middle Eastern—and that’s a significant advancement.”

Indeed, many experts believe that the most effective route to skin repair is through this area of cosmetic dermatology. What can the latest lasers and light therapy machines do for you?

This article was originally titled “Chasing Radiance,” in the November/December 2008 issue of Best Health Magazine. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!

Originally Published in Best Health Canada