Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend
One Size Does Not Fit All
Your genes play a huge role in how your skin ages. Understanding the variations could make all the difference in maintaining a glowing complexion.
Learn what you need to know about your skin—and how to care for it—as it ages.
From your eye color to your shoe size, your genes determine a lot of things about how you look. But their influence reaches far beyond the obvious. In fact, genetics play an outsize role in both how and when your skin ages, so much so that your ethnic background can help provide clues to what the aging process will look like for your complexion.
Let’s start with the aging process in general. “There are two types of aging of the skin,” says Erum Ilyas, M.D., a dermatologist in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and a member of the Skin of Color Specialty Clinic at Schweiger Dermatology. First up is intrinsic aging. This is the natural oxidative stress that builds over time throughout the body and affects every organ, from your skin to your heart to your liver.
With intrinsic aging, changes in skin are inevitable, says Ilyas. It’s that unavoidable wear and tear that happens to everyone: skin becomes a little thinner, starts to sag a bit due to the loss of fatty tissue in the face, and develops fine lines. No one is excused from the gradual breakdown of collagen and elastin.
Extrinsic aging, on the other hand, is caused by external factors. You have more control over these, for better or for worse. “That’s the amount of sun exposure you get, what you eat and how much you exercise,” says Ilyas. “You’ll start to see lots of freckles, discoloration, broken blood vessels, dark spots and this general loss of elasticity of the skin.”
Sun exposure in particular is responsible for a disproportionate amount of this extrinsic aging. A 2013 study published in Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigative Dermatology concluded that sun exposure accounts for a staggering 80% of signs of skin aging on the face, including wrinkles, discoloration and sagging skin.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an even playing field, since certain factors can influence how your skin responds to these sources of extrinsic aging. One of the biggest is your skin tone, which is determined by the amount of melanin, or pigment, in your skin. The more melanin you have, the better off you are in some respects. Namely, “the melanin in the skin provides some inherent photoprotection, leading to delayed aging,” says Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M.D., a dermatologist and a member of Skin of Color Society.
Fair skin, with less melanin, lacks this natural sun protection. That can move up the aging timeline; for those with lighter skin, “early signs of photoaging start when patients are in their 30s,” says WooleryLloyd. “These include fine lines, mottled pigmentation and textural changes.”
Even if you’ve been diligent about sun protection as an adult, much of the damage is already done by the time you start seeing it. In fact, says Ilyas, most of the sun damage happens in people when they’re younger and simply goes unseen— until you reach a certain age, that is. Also complicating matters: Fair skin tends to be thin, structurally speaking. “There’s less collagen support and a thinning of the dermis itself, which is the part that holds the collagen in our skin‚” Ilyas explains. “That makes it more susceptible to damage and shows the impact of sun damage a lot more quickly.”
Finally, there’s the matter of moisture within the skin—or, depending on your genealogy, the lack thereof. Your skin’s own sources of hydration, such as hyaluronic acid, take a nosedive over the years, leading to dry, rough skin. While this is an example of intrinsic aging at work, its impact on skin can still vary across ethnicity. Fair skin tends to be drier by nature, and the reduction of moisture over time may only make that worse.
Conversely, for those with Asian, Hispanic and African backgrounds,
“there’s a little bit more of a thickness of the dermis that allows it to withstand some of those forces from the outside,” says Ilyas. They also tend to have a generally higher rate of sebum production—sebum being the waxy substance that serves as the skin’s builtin moisturizer and replenishes the skin barrier. That can make skin more resilient, serving as extra protection against external factors like, yes, sunlight, but also pollution, temperature swings and other common environmental stressors.
While skin of color becomes thinner with age, too, the effect is a lot less pronounced than in fair skin. That’s because the fibroblasts, which are cells tasked with producing collagen and helping to heal wounds, are typically larger and more active in darker skin tones. “That’s probably part of the reason why wrinkling is happening at a later timepoint in this population,” says Neelam Vashi, M.D., an associate professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine and the director of the Boston University Cosmetic and Laser Center at Boston Medical Center. “It’ll eventually happen, but it’ll be 10 years after their white or Caucasian counterparts.”
Although there are obvious advantages for people of color in that respect, it doesn’t mean they’re exempt from all early signs of skin aging. They’re just prone to other things—namely, pigmentary issues. “Darker skin is more likely to have hyperpigmentation or dark spots,” says Vashi. It’s the downside of having a lot of melanin in skin. When there’s more melanin, the melanocytes—the cells that produce pigment—are more active. Anything from sun exposure to a zit can cause the pigment production process to go haywire and, in some cases, produce too much melanin, explains Vashi. That can lead to dark spots and a generally uneven skin tone. And while these can fade over time, she says, it takes a lot longer than it would in someone with fairer skin. Clearly, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to skin health. The good news? Just understanding the differences can help you better optimize your skincare routine accordingly.
ANTI-AGING FOR ALL
This might not come as a shock, but sunscreen is the best possible anti-aging product out there—for everyone. “You need to be always thinking about how to protect your skin throughout the year,” says Ilyas. “Not just in the summer days, not just when you’re at the beach, but every single day, just to delay or prevent that extrinsic aging from kicking in.” (It should go without saying that it’s also essential for skin-cancer prevention.)
Speaking of: Even with that inherent sun protection, people with darker skin tones are still at risk for skin cancer— despite the common (and inaccurate) belief that having dark skin means you can’t get it. According to a paper published in Photochemical Photobiology, melanin in skin clocks in at just SPF 4, which isn’t nearly enough sun protection. “People of color have never been told that skin cancer is a possibility, and most of them are diagnosed later than earlier,” says
Ilyas. “Oftentimes, you’ll see them come in with a spot that’s already bleeding on their nose or something along those lines, where they just didn’t even think it could be cancer.” But it really is a possibility, no matter your background—so it’s worth defending yourself accordingly.
Another universal step is to maintain moisture in skin. Despite the plentiful sebum found in darker skin tones, “dryness is common in all skin types with age,” says Woolery-Lloyd. “So moisturizers and gentle cleansers become very important.” You just need to choose which one works best for your skin type, she adds; for instance, a lightweight lotion might do the trick if your skin is on the oily side, whereas someone with very dry skin may want to opt for a richer, emollient-packed cream.
Beyond cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen, you can customize your skincare routine based on the concerns unique to your background. “If you have darker skin and are more concerned about dark spots or uneven skin tone, you might choose a dark spot corrector at night,” says Woolery-Lloyd. “If you have lighter skin and are concerned about fine lines, you might go with a retinol night cream.”
That said, keep in mind that it’s not always so straightforward. “There’s a bit of a balancing act,” says Ilyas. “If I have a patient who’s half-Irish and half-Iranian, they flush and blush and they’re oily.” And since multiracial children are the fastest growing youth group in the United States, this nuanced approach is only going to become more common.
Plus, your ethnicity isn’t the only thing that should dictate your skin-care routine. “I focus on saying, ‘What bothers you about your skin? Let’s focus on that and finding the ingredient to help you with that,’ ” says Ilyas. Because while your genetics can certainly point you in the right direction, your personal skin concerns and goals can help you further navigate the way to healthy, radiant skin.