How to Love the Skin You're In

Looking the best you can really is a superficial concern — but that's a good thing

Photographer / Guy Coombes. Hair and make-up / Shirley Simpson using M.A.C Cosmetics and O&M. Model / Jade Woods from Unique Model Management. Fashion Editor / Dan Ahwa.

We’ve all been enticed by the promises of skincare products turning back time by acting at the deeper level, but it’s the surface layer you should focus on. At the risk of sounding superficial, it is, after all, what everyone sees.

The ideal of beauty is universally underpinned by fresh, glowing skin. Leaving aside layers of barely detectable makeup, sun protection and good genes, how do you get truly naked skin that stands up to selfie scrutiny?

A growing band of beauty experts reckons it pays not to think or prod too deeply. Yet for years the beauty industry has been looking inward, talking about products penetrating beyond the epidermis to the dermal junction and even to the dermis below.

From a research point of view that deep thinking is great, the more cosmetic scientists know about how skin functions the better they can help us cheat time a little. We want our pricey products infused as far as possible into the skin but, the reality is, most penetrate only so far. So it is good to hear more leading skincare brands talk about supporting skin rather than miraculously renewing it.

There is a reason dermatologists treating troubles prioritise repairing and strengthening the skin’s barrier layer. Once it is compromised, problems worsen, potentially opening up skin with nasty nappy rash, eczema or acne to further inflammation, germs and infection. Dry, sun-damaged skin also looks less healthy and youthful than a clear, fresh complexion.

Keeping the surface layer healthy and hydrated is the starting point of visibly slowing the clock. This doesn’t mean not considering what lies beneath, but rather clearing a doorway to a multi-layered approach.

The rationale is that a completely dry sponge doesn’t absorb as well as a damp one, explains Art Pellegrino, the research and development driver at Elizabeth Arden, which is about to launch an innovative product called SuperStart that extends barrier layer protection. It “wets” the “sponge” to make skin more receptive and resilient and falls into a new category of skincare called a booster or pre-serum (see page 20).

Photographic studies have shown that, more than wrinkles, surface skin tone and texture is a key early indicator of ageing. We know that ageing (or intrinsic damage) is only partly to blame for our loss of face, with environmental (or extrinsic) damage from sun and other aggressors, including smoking, being responsible for accelerating the signs. Aside from aesthetics, aggravated and pigmented skin is, of itself, ageing.

Inflammation increases free radical activity which causes oxidation and damages collagen, a vital part of the connective tissue that keeps skin supple. Curbing this activity helps antioxidants do their natural job “scavenging” up free radicals.

Think of this as akin to applying lemon juice to a cut avocado to prevent it browning. That the thinking behind adding antioxidants to topical skincare — those which are normally diet-derived, including vitamins A, C and E, and the catechins found in green tea — and enzymes matching those found in the body.

In laboratories, both internationally and locally, work is focusing on which combinations of ingredients and delivery mechanisms work best. But with so many ingredients to choose from, where to begin?

Some scientists reckon we should look to the genetic make-up of long-living animals for clues, others to the special properties of plants, especially those that thrive in harsh land and sea environments and others again to engineered substances mimicking those found in young skin.

One of the world’s foremost cosmeceutical scientists, Joe Lewis, spelled out a handy triangular approach to me. If you are looking for advanced skincare, beyond standard notions of cleansing, hydrating and treating, then check out the approach adopted by Elizabeth Arden as the repair, transform and optimise pillars of its skincare development programme, based on a published paper Lewis consulted on called The Skin Health and Beauty Pyramid: A Clinically-Based Guide to Selecting Topical Skincare.

1. The base need is for SPF, antioxidants and DNA enzymes. Not all are created equal.

2. Then add retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) for hydration, exfoliation and cell renewal, with Lewis pointing to their sound 30-plus years track record, and to hyaluronic acid for moisture plumping.

3. The tip of the triangle comprises peptides, growth factors and stem cells, but with only 10 years behind this emerging science much is yet to be learned about which peptides to use and how growth factors and stem cells work within skin rather than in the laboratory. Growth factors which can stimulate cell division are also on the tricky line between cosmetics and drugs.

“When we can identify the right ones and map the signal pathway, that’s the name of the game,” says Lewis.

It is hard to believe molecular biologist and ultra-marathon runner Dr Bill Andrews is 64. Meeting him on a trip to Auckland I’d pick him as 10 years younger. He is passionate about his life’s work finding a cure for what he describes as the disease of ageing. His research centres on telomeres and ageing.

These caps on chromosones in the nucleus of our cells shorten with age and as cell division slows we eventually die. Dr Andrews’ discoveries around human telomerase, an enzyme of reproductive cells that he says can inhibit telomere shortening, have led to a compound used in a serum called One Truth 818, developed with New Zealand businesswoman Rachael D’Aguiar of the Chase Life Extension Foundation which markets the product internationally.

Ageing can potentially be reversed, he says, but not development which ends at around age 24. He reckons we can be immortal. “Immortal in science terms meaning stopping [cell] division not living forever,” he explains, though he is aiming for 130.

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