Are you worried about how well your brain, heart and other organs work, or how they look? The answer may seem obvious, but when it comes to our body’s largest organ we’re often more concerned about appearance than function. However, healthy skin isn’t necessarily a product of the latest skin care products or make-up. As with other organs, it’s our lifestyle choices that can make all the difference.
While there are some factors we can’t control — like age, genetics and hormones — there are many things we can do to keep our skin healthy and looking younger for years to come:
Handle with care. Taking more care with your lingerie than your skin? According to experts, the same rules apply: gentle washing and gentle drying. You don’t need expensive products – a gentle cleanser like glycerin soap will do the trick. Warm water is better than hot or cold, and don’t linger too long in the tub or you’ll actually lose moisture. When you reach for the towel, avoid rubbing your skin and pat dry instead.
And don’t skip the bedtime wash. Before your head hits the pillow, make sure your skin is free of all the oil, dirt and make-up you accumulated during your waking hours.
Shave with caution. Razors are a budget-friendly way to get rid of unwanted hair, but they can also cause irritation (especially in delicate areas.) You can keep your skin soothed by shaving after a warm shower or bath or putting a warm cloth over the area first. Keep your tools sharp and clean, and shave in the direction of hair growth rather than against it if your skin is sensitive. Shaving gel, shaving cream or lotion can provide some much needed lubrication for dry skin.
Avoid irritants. Even if you don’t have sensitive skin, the harsh chemicals in cleaners and detergents — not to mention perfumes, dyes and additives in personal grooming products — can aggravate your skin. Cleaning products can strip moisture from your skin, even if it doesn’t react to them. In addition, your skin can absorb chemicals with which it comes in contact — allowing potentially-dangerous toxins to enter your body.
How to dodge the risks? Read the labels carefully: a good rule of thumb is to avoid any ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce. (Some natural health experts advise that if you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin.) Wear gloves when handling or using products that contain harsh chemicals, like cleaning products.
Moisturize regularly. Does your skin feel tight after a shower? Chances are you need a moisturizer to nourish and protect your skin. What product you buy and how often you use it will depend on a number of factors, including where you plan to use it (face or body), your age, skin type (dry or oily) and any skin issues you have.
For daytime wear, the Mayo Clinic recommends a moisturizer with at least SPF 15. Beauty experts recommend something a little heavier on the face and neck for night time use to combat the affects of aging. Baby oil is another option for extra-dry skin, and aloe vera and anti-oxidant ingredients provide benefits too. Avoid products with alcohol — they’ll dry the skin.
Skip the sun. Aside from the dangers of skin cancer, the sun is responsible for most of the signs of aging on our skin, according to experts. We already know how to protect against this hazard: stay indoors during peak hours, sit in the shade, cover up with clothing, don a hat and sunglasses and regularly use sunscreen or sun block.
If you’re in charge of youngsters, make sure they cover up too. The damaging effects of the sun start at an early age.
Provide shelter from the elements. There’s some truth behind the term “weather-beaten complexion”. In addition to the harmful effects of the sun, the wind can dry skin too (think of how well moving air dries our hair and clothes). Extreme hot and cold won’t help either.
What’s the remedy? Avoid extreme temperatures (when possible), and put your fashion sense to work with a scarf, wrap or other protective clothing to cover exposed skin.
Control the climate. Dry air draws moisture from any source possible — including exposed skin. While we can’t control the weather, we can control our indoor environment, and that’s where we usually spend most of our time. Experts note that 35 to 50 per cent humidity indoors is ideal. (A humidity gage from the hardware store can help you keep track). If your home is too dry, a humidifier can help keep your skin nourished.
Exercise. Get your blood pumping — it’s good for your entire body, including your outer layer. The skin also benefits from the good circulation that comes with a good workout, like increased oxygen and vitamins to help it look refreshed and younger.
Exercise also mitigates the effects of other ailments — like stress and fatigue– which can add years to your look due to puffy, dark eyes and sallow skin.
Nourish from within. Your skin is more than just an outer shell: it’s part of a complex system and it needs good nutrition too. The good news: the foods that are good for the heart and waistline are good for the skin too – like vitamin-packed fruits and vegetables, anti-oxidants, vitamin D and essential fatty acids. But beware: some foods can cause inflammation that shows in your skin. (Check out Can food fight inflammation? for details.)
In addition, drink up! There’s still some debate about how much fluid we need each day and how this affects our skin, but some experts note that getting plenty of fluids keeps skin hydrated and plump, and even helps to flush out toxins.
Manage stress. There’s no way around it — stress negatively impacts health and your skin is no exception. Stress can rob the skin of water, making it difficult to repair itself and heal. Studies have also shown that stress triggers the release of certain chemicals like cortisol that can trigger or worsen skin conditions like atopic dermatitis and acne thanks to increased oil production. Cortisol can also break down collagen — which your skin needs for elasticity.
Prolonged stress can also affect the dilation of blood vessels in our skin – meaning too much or too little blood is reaching the cells. Too little blood can give the skin a pale, dull appearance and make skin less supple. Too much blood makes the skin appear flushed, and can worsen conditions like rosacea.
We can’t avoid stress, but taking steps like exercising more, employing relaxation techniques and keeping our relationships healthy can make sure it doesn’t get the better of us.
Keep an eye out for changes. Skin care ads tell us to “love our skin”, but one of the best things we can do is get to know it. Rashes, blisters, dark spots, wounds that don’t heal and changes to our moles can signal trouble, whether it’s allergies, dermatitis or melanoma. Experts agree that checking your skin on a regular basis should be part of your at-home screening routine, and any changes should be examined by a doctor. Have a spouse or trusted friend or family member check hard-to-see places like your scalp and back.
Seek medical advice. Conditions like acne, rosacea, psoriasis and eczema can affect more than just the skin’s appearance. They can cause considerable discomfort and result in interrupted sleep, loss of productivity, missed days at work and even permanent damage if left untreated. They can erode self-confidence and impact quality of life.
While there isn’t a cure for these conditions, a health care professional can recommend lifestyle changes and medications to help. Allergies and chemical sensitivities may be the unknown culprits.
These lifestyle changes will help keep your skin looking its best, but one habit you’ll want to break is smoking. Smoking can hasten the effects of aging and make skin look years older than it actually is. It shrinks the blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to the outer layers of our skin, depriving it of oxygen and vitamin A. Also, because your skin is losing elasticity, repetitive motions like pursing your lips and squinting to keep smoke out of your eyes will leave their mark — in the form of lines and wrinkles.
Overall, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, cash or trial-and-error to get better skin. Whether you use a lot of skin care products or not, building these steps into your routine can help improve your skin.
Sources: Canadian Dermatology Association, Mayoclinic.com, the National Post, ScienceDaily.com.