5 Common Culprits in Skin Damage
The sun, free radicals, smoking, irritants, and facial expressions can cause skin damage. Find out how to fight back.
By Marie Suszynski
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Our skin is assaulted by everything from the sun to irritating laundry detergent and cigarette smoke.
And it can show. Wrinkles, redness, and even skin cancer can result. But before you resign yourself to the aging effects of your environment, consider the five most common culprits of skin damage and learn what you can do to avoid them.
The aging effects of the environment can certainly show up in the mirror, but thereís no reason you canít fight back with these strategies.
- Sun exposure. The sun is the biggest cause of skin damage, says Faramarz Samie, MD, PhD, a dermatologist at Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia. The ultraviolet rays of the sun break down collagen and elastin, which help keep your skin looking plump and smooth. They also affect melanocytes, which can lead to changes in your skinís pigmentation. The aging effects of the sun eventually show on your skin as wrinkles, age spots (patches of brown spots), and possibly skin cancer.
To avoid the skin damage that can be caused by the sun, dermatologists advise staying out of the sun during the middle of the day when the sunís rays are strongest, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen ó one that protects against both types of harmful ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB ó with a sun protection factor of 30 or higher, and wearing protective clothing such as a hat when youíre outside.
- Free radicals. One of the ways the sun damages your skin is through production of harmful substances called free radicals. Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules with a single electron. In short, doctors think that ultraviolet light from the sun can lead to damaged DNA and skin damage, Dr. Samie says. Free radicals may even play a role in the development of skin cancer. They are also the result of exposure to tobacco products or other factors in the environment. Some skin care products contain antioxidants such as vitamins C and E that help to lessen the aging effects that free radicals have on your skin. Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants, is also good for healthy skin.
- Smoking cigarettes. Overall, the skin of a smoker isnít as healthy and doesnít heal as well as a nonsmokerís skin. It also has a tendency to wrinkle easily. Thatís because smoking cigarettes causes all of your blood vessels to constrict, or get more narrow, including the vessels that feed the outer layers of your skin, says J. Greg Brady, DO, a dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon at Advanced Dermatology Associates in Allentown, Pa.
When you smoke, your skin gets less of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to stay healthy, and that leads to wrinkles. In addition, smoking causes elastic fibers in the skin to thicken, which means your skin wonít snap back into shape as well and you can experience sagging, Dr. Brady says. ďThe more you smoke, the more likely it is to happen,Ē he explains. ďIf you smoke two packs a day and youíve done it for 20 years, you have a 40-pack history.Ē The bigger that number, the more skin damage youíll see.
Nicotine gum, inhalers, lozenges, nasal spray, and patches can all help you quit, along with prescription medications such as Zyban (bupropion), Chantix (varenicline), Aventyl (nortriptyline), and Catapres (clonidine). Talk to your doctor about the best option for you.
- Irritants. Chemicals in cleaning products and laundry detergent can cause red, irritated skin and allergies in people who are susceptible, Samie says. Ammonia and bleaches have a tendency to irritate skin. These chemicals may cause contact dermatitis, which is scaling and irritation, and sometimes even a chemical burn. People with more sensitive skin will experience more skin irritation than others. There are also more than 3,000 substances in our environment that can cause allergies.
The easiest way to protect your skin from irritants is to avoid contact, either by wearing gloves when you clean or do dishes or by switching to less irritating products. Also, moisturizing your skin can help. Some people may need an antihistamine or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for treatment.
- Smiles and frowns. Itís a simple fact that as you age your skin loses it elasticity and doesnít snap back into place after you make facial expressions the way it did when you were younger, Samie says. As a result, your skin will show wrinkles even when youíre not frowning or laughing. No one would say to stop living life or showing expression on your face, but you can try to combat aging effects by preventing skin damage from the sun with sunscreen. You might also consider using over-the-counter or prescription wrinkle creams or other topical medications to smooth out the skin. Also, a host of procedures are available to reduce wrinkles, including microdermabrasion, chemical peels, laser resurfacing, and injectable fillers such as collagen.