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Anti-aging: A Biological Truth or an Elusive Myth?
By Lori Stryker, B.Sc., B.H.Ec., B.Ed.

As middle age approaches, many men and women begin an endless search for products to reverse the signs of aging. In an attempt to capture the disposable income of these ones, many cosmetic companies have touted their lotions and potions, promising a reversal of the chronological signs of aging.

Why Does the Skin Age?

Aging of the skin reveals itself in a variety of outward signs as a result of two aging processes: intrinstic and extrinsic. Instrinsic aging is also termed the ‘natural aging process’. The skin is made up of three layers. The epidermis is the layer we see. Underneath is the dermis and beneath the dermis is the hypodermis. Embedded in the deeper layers of the skin is a network of collagen and elastin which keeps our skin looking plump and gives it resiliency. Over time, collagen production slows down and elastin loses its ‘elasticity’. Outward signs of aging include wrinkling of the skin, transparency resulting from a thinning of the dermal layers and a reduction of the fat underlying the skin layers. Skin begins to ‘sag’ as we age, since facial bones shrink away from the skin and muscles. Dry skin often accompanies aging skin symptoms.

Extrinsic aging is premature aging of the skin due to factors that accelerate the natural aging process, namely sun exposure and smoking. Sun exposure is the largest contributor to premature aging of the skin. Ultraviolet radiation breaks down collagen and impairs the ability of the skin to generate new collagen or to adequately repair itself. UV radiation also attacks elastin, preventing it from maintaining its elasticity. Photoaging (aging resulting from sun exposure) results in freckles, age spots, spider veins, rough, leathery skin, loose and wrinkled skin as well as a blotchy complexion. The results of photoaging may not appear right away, but often surface decades after exposure.

Smoking is another extrinsic factor which leads to premature aging of the skin. Biochemical changes take place in the skin which accelerate aging processes. Smoking causes the skin to wrinkle faster, and heavy smokers often develop an irregular yellow hue to their skin. Once smoking stops, the skin will experience improved tone and appearance.

What Can Reverse Aging?

Many ‘cures’ for antiaging centre around the theory of free radical damage. Free radicals are atoms in the cell which have unpaired electrons circling their nucleus, which are thought to damage other parts of the cell as the free radical tries to capture another electron to pair up with. In doing so, the theory is that the cell has been damaged as a result of this electron capture. Antioxidants such as vitamin E, A and others are believed to provide free radicals with the electron it needs, thus keeping the cell intact and undamaged. This process may be aided when we eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables, rich in antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Antioxidants applied to the skin may provide the same function, so cosmetics rich in antioxidants may assist in preventing free radical damage in the layers beneath the epidermis if they are absorbed. Caution must be taken in using antioxidant-rich cosmetics, since the fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K are toxic if oversupplied to the body or skin.

The skin is a highly complex, dynamic tissue system. One square inch of the skin is composed of 19 million cells, 625 sweat glands, 90 oil glands, 65 hair follicles, 19 000 sensory cells and 4 metres of blood vessels (Lappe, 1996). The outermost layer of the epidermis is called the cornified layer, and is made of sheets of keratin, a protein, and squames, dead, flat skin cells. It is our barrier against dehydration from the environment. It receives its primary supply of moisture from the underlying tissue, since constant contact from the external environment tends to dry out the skin's surface. When the skin is exposed to dry conditions, the cornified layer can become dry, brittle, firm and if untreated, it can crack and lead to infection. Creams create a waxy barrier to prevent dehydration and keep the skin moist and supple. Underneath the cornified layer lie six more layers of the epidermis responsible for cell generation. The life cycle of skin cells within this layer takes approximately 28 days, so it may take three to four weeks to observe any changes at the skin's surface from using a new cosmetic.

Other methods of antiaging include the use of hormone replacement therapies, calorie restricted diets or anti-glycating supplements. Some even claim that certain herbs, enzymes or animal-derived substances can reverse aging when taken as supplements. There are no convincing clinical studies to prove such claims, and testimonials that these agents work are not accepted in the scientific community as credible. Some skin treatments can show temporary changes in the surface of the skin, such as microdermabrasion or skin peels, which slough off the primary layers of dead skin cells of the epidermis to prematurely reveal new skin cells underneath. Over time, this often causes an unhealthy thickening of the skin and sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation, as the layer of skin being removed is meant to offer protection from the elements and the sun. Removing it leaves new skin precariously exposed.

Cosmeceuticals which are engineered with chemicals to re-thicken the skin or ‘plump’ the skin may also provide temporary changes in the surface of the skin, giving the illusion of anti-aging. All such products or chemical agents thought to provide anti-aging work at the surface of the skin and cannot stop or prevent the processes of aging of the skin mentioned earlier in this article.


Skin is made up of three main layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the hypodermis (see picture below).The epidermis is the only layer we can see with our eyes and as we age, remarkable changes occur which are hidden from our view. For instance, the skin gradually thins over time, especially around the eyes. Some cosmeceuticals can minimally re-thicken the skin, but the process of thinning is inevitable. Elastin and collagen, located in the dermis keep the skin resilient and moist, but with ageing these fibres break down to create lines and wrinkles. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation accelerates this process, and since few cosmetics can actually reach the dermis, the idea that a cosmetic can reverse this process is unfounded. The best way to prevent fine lines and wrinkles is to limit our exposure to the sun and ultraviolet radiation. Despite our best attempts, antiaging is a myth, ever elusive and unattainable by human efforts.


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