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If you’re curious as to how skin science actually works, how it relates to skincare, and why less is more, you may find some answers here. Here, we also discuss how nutrition, sleep, stress, and circumstance all play a part.
We all accept that skin aging, just like our bodies, is an inevitable consequence of the sun rising and setting every day. Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, how is skin made, why does it age and what can skincare really do for my skin? Well, this was the question that we asked when starting out on the very long journey of discovery that brought us to creating Skinega.
It was our curiosity and cynicism as consumers that led us away from the glossies and towards the scientific journals and medical books to unearth real answers to such questions. The purpose of this article is to share some of our findings, and also to position skincare at the back of the queue behind mental, physical, and nutritional health as an effective way to stay looking young.
Think of skin like a mattress with a mattress topper, that’s made in a bed factory. The mattress topper represents your outer layer of skin (the epidermis), and the mattress itself represents what the lower layer, called the dermis. The factory is the cells or the machine that makes all the skin, and we’ll come back to the factory later. For now, remember the word fibroblasts.
Every day or perhaps less frequently, depending on your obsessive behaviors, your mattress topper will be given a shake and a plum up, and perhaps a wash, so you can go back you that super soft feeling of the topper, supported by the more sturdy mattress underneath. This is your daily facial cleansing and moisturizing.
The topper also acts as a protective guard for when you will inevitably spill chocolate ice-cream, or whichever flavor you’re recklessly indulging in from the comfort of your bed. This protection is great for your bed, but for skin, as it relates to aging, the mattress is where the real action happens and so many creams and ingredients just don’t penetrate the top layer of skin.
Imagine the structure of a springform mattress. There are the springs and then you have a mixture of padding that fills out the empty space. If one of these components is missing or damaged, it will be a completely different experience. If there were no springs, the structural integrity of the mattress would be compromised. If there was nothing filling up the empty space, you’d have a very uncomfortable sleep with springs sticking in your back.
Now, we’re going to transpose all these elements into skin. The mattress topper in skin is the epidermis where skin cells are produced as if by magic by these incredible cells that just make skin (epidermal stem cells). The outer layer of skin is the protection from the external environment and is made largely from skin cells and lipids (fats), although not exclusively.
It performs a number of protective functions, and all skincare can really do for this top layer, is clean, moisturize (through mimicking the skin’s own lipids and oils), protect (through antioxidant and UV protection), exfoliate (with acids) and perhaps correct/brighten skin. Anything else that affects aging can only happen in the next layer. However, what makes the epidermis great, also poses a challenge for so many skincare ingredients, and that challenge relates to ingredient penetration. So many ingredients simply cannot penetrate this layer and make their way through to the dermis, where the real skin factory is. Factors for successful penetration include molecular size, the delivery method, and what else is already on your skin.
Aging skin happens both from the inside and the outside. The outside is obviously things like sun damage, harsh chemicals, and other environmental factors. One of the main reasons these external factors cause the skin to age faster is because they damage the cells through oxidative stress and DNA damage. Oxidative stress, antioxidants, and DNA damage are terms familiar to most people with a keen interest in skincare. But what about the inside? How does skin age internally and can we really do anything about it? Well, yes we can, but not as much as some may lead you to believe.
In the dermis, the layer under the external epidermis, is where the hair follicles live, the oil glands, the sweat glands, blood cells, nerve endings, and various other components. When it comes to skin aging though, just forget about all of these for a moment and let’s focus on the part of the dermis called the Extra Cellular Matrix (ECM). This is the core mattress of the skin as it relates to aging.
The ECM is made from two main classes of macromolecules: proteoglycans and fibrous proteins. Now, stay with me, as this isn’t about to get all abstract and confusing. Fibrous proteins are what we know to be collagen, elastin, and there are two others I’ll ignore for now (fibronectin and laminin). Collagen and elastin are the springs in the mattress. These are formed in a matrix-like structure, which gives skin its strength and elasticity.
Then, the stuff most people aren’t so familiar with is the mattress filler, the cushioning and foam bits that fill the mattress up. This is the proteoglycans which are formed in part by what is called GAG’s (glycosaminoglycans), and the main one of these that you may be familiar with is Hyaluronic Acid, or hyaluronan as its known in the skin. It is a substance that can hold 1000 times its weight in water and it fills up all of this empty space in the skin mattress that houses the springs (collagen and elastin), blood vessels, nerve endings and so on. Hyaluronan is also in all of your joints and makes up the biggest part of the fluid in your eyeballs. It’s also what cosmetic fillers are made from as your body recognises it as completely natural. We also use this ingredient.
Similarly, with the outer layer of skin and its epidermal stem cells, this dermis layer, the mattress, has its own epidermal stem cells called fibroblasts which are part of the of the mesenchymal family of cells, so called as they are embryologically derived from the mesoderm (the middle part of an embryo in early development). These cells are amazing. They’re like the proverbial spider spinning the web, or the strands of collagen and elastin, and they also create the spongy stuff that fills the space. Think about how amazing that is for a second. They just come from thin air, exist and just make skin all day. They don’t complain about it. They just get on and do the job. There’s a lot us humans can learn from the work ethic of fibroblasts.
However, just like humans, they don’t live forever. Also, like humans, they’re not happy being abused, and they will die early if you’re not kind to them. Cue the lecture on sun exposure, smoking, drinking, stress and so on. Lecture over.
As a mattress ages, it will inevitably get saggy and perhaps lumpy. This is through overuse and the fact that it’s just old. Similarly, in skin, the springs start to deteriorate, and all the foam and padding starts to decrease. In other words, the fibroblasts stop making collagen, elastin and the spongy stuff as efficiently. Not only that, but when fibroblasts reach the end of their long life and become what’s called senescent fibroblasts (or “dead” for simplicity), they actually start to be a complete nuisance and, in simple terms, attack the structural integrity of the once long and springy collagen and elastin strands. Once that structure has been compromised, and the springs collapse, and spongy stuff deflates, this is how skin sags, droops, wrinkles, and shows visual signs of aging.
Also, your mattress topper, because its epidermal stem cells are too old and tired to keep reproducing fluffy skin, is now as thin as a sheet so you can’t even make your bed look fluffy anymore. It’s starting to look more like a sheet draped over a wooden park bench. Also, if you’ve left that bed out in the sun, and you’ve smoked in bed, and stayed up every weekend in it drinking and being stressed out, it’s going to look even worse.
The point is, there is no escaping the skin aging process. It may sound strange coming from a skincare company, but we believe too much hype and faith is put into the promise of eternal youth as it’s just scientifically not achievable. In simple terms, skin ages for two reasons: 1. Skin has a biological clock just like we do. 2. We abuse it with sun, stress, poor nutrition and poor sleep. That’s it.
There is only so much we can do but being kind to yourself and your body is the best form of skincare you can apply. If all you’re doing is putting good skincare on your face, yet you’re smoking, over-exposing your skin to sun, not sleeping well, and not getting good nutrients through your diet, you’re prematurely killing off the skin factory and making all of the machines that make skin old before their time.
Also, if you don’t develop a practical sense of how skin really works, how it’s made, how the aging process works, then you may continue to expect too much, and you may also be sucked into the latest fad ingredients and tools. It doesn’t take the 2000 to 3000 ingredients that exist in skincare to maintain good skin. It doesn’t take a separate cream for eyes, neck, and face. It takes an understanding that skincare is one part and the smallest part of a healthy skin routine. The biggest part of your skincare regime should be focussed on your mental, physical, and nutritional well-being, and staying away from the sun. Skincare comes after all of that, or quite frankly, you’ll be wasting your money.
If you really take time to understand how skin works, and the limitations of what skincare can do, you’ll seek to simplify your skincare regime and stop adding tens and hundreds of ingredients to your face. Feed your skin the nutrients it understands, and not the ones that happen to grow on trees, and stay even more focused on keeping your skin fibroblasts alive longer. Your skin’s biological clock responds just the same to your own biological clock when it comes to diet, exercise, sleep, and stress levels.
Skincare should never be seen as “the fountain of youth”, and instead should be considered as a small contributory step to your overall skin health. There’s no need to overdo it, not in terms of steps, nor products, nor ingredient numbers. I don’t have evidence of the exact ratios here, and it’s more of a hypothesis to make a point, but if you take nutrition, fitness, sleep, mental wellbeing, and skincare, and their importance to skin aging, I’d say skincare is the least transformational. It has to be in balance, but it’s not a solution for other problems. If you just ask for extra salad on your burger, that doesn’t make your choices healthier. Similarly, if your lifestyle choices are already terrible, don’t expect much from good skincare. So, stay out of the sun, get some sleep, eat your greens, and generally make healthier choices, oh and make your bed like your mother taught you to.
Written By Fraser Hill, Founder, and CEO, Skinega Inc.
Fraser is the Founder and CEO of Skinega, Inc. He grew up and was educated in Scotland before going on to forge an 18-year career in executive consulting and research, living and working in London, Hong Kong, Poland, Canada, and in the US, working for companies including J.P. Morgan, as well as starting Consulting firms in Canada in 2008, and London in 2012. With his background in research and technology, Fraser embarked on a consumer-driven journey to seek out cleaner, vegan, more effective luxury skincare. He sought a “free from” list that went beyond just harmful ingredients to include ingredients that serve no purpose to skin’s wellbeing like synthetic thickeners, colors, fragrance, and other texture modifiers. His search was unsuccessful, so Skinega was developed over a two-year period, then formally established in 2017.