Skin and ageing

The second most popular question I’m asked at parties once people find out I’m a skin biologist is this:

iStock_000025434937Small ia

“Do those anti-ageing products actually work?”

And there is often a follow-up – “Should I be using one?”…

To answer demands the Wisdom of Solomon and the bravado of Gok Wan – neither of which I possess – which is maybe why I don’t get asked to many parties.

As I write this I’m returning from a lecture by Dr Eileen Bradbury, a well-known psychologist working with people undergoing cosmetic surgery procedures.

What this brought home is:

The most common question usually involves exposing an area of skin with some blemish or other, and asking “What is this? Should I be worried?”

  1. Our obsession with age & beauty is as old as society itself.
  2. Facial symmetry has always been the hallmark of a beautiful face.
  3. Attractiveness and beauty are two very different things.

Two separate scientific studies recently published from Chanel and Procter & Gamble address the ideas of what makes skin younger-looking and attractive.

Chanel found that we associate younger-looking skin with very defined major facial features – eyebrows, eyelashes, eyelids, skin creases & lips that stand out. P&G found that uniformity of colour complexion, even close up without reference to facial features, is the key to perception of age and attractiveness in men and women.

So what? Well, this justifies the lengths many of us take to create a defined look using eyebrow pens, mascaras & lipstick; and why moisturisers that help to even out skin tone are so popular – particularly those with some pigment (BB creams and further along the alphabet !).

Evening out the complexion, by whatever means, and masking the appearance of wrinkles using foundation or “anti-wrinkle creams” both offer a good route to minimising the outward appearances of advanced age.

Make light of it!

The signs of ageing are exactly what they say they are – signs that result from the way light reflects from the skin. A young taut smooth skin with a hydrated epidermis reflects light more uniformly and the hydrated dermis creates the “peach-like” dewy look we associate with youth.

There are two things that change this “perfection”– one you can prevent and one you can’t.

You can control some of the external factors in your environment and life-style:

Of the four factors you can control, exposure to UV is the biggest problem.

  • poor diet
  • smoking
  • stresses
  • the amount UV (ultraviolet light) you are exposed to
See also  Wear your wrinkles with pride!

The more unprotected UV exposure your skins gets, the greater and deeper the damage. This “photo-ageing” or “extrinsic ageing” brings dullness, dry, fine lines and eventually deeper wrinkling, broken blood vessels and uneven pigmentation, graduating towards the “leathery” look of old skin.

Light bounces off UV damaged skin differently, due to the changes in surface dryness, epidermal dysfunction, uneven melanin deposition and “gaps” under the epidermis where collagen and elastin used to be. The leathery appearance results from collagen damage deeper in the dermis.

The second factor as we age – “intrinsic” or chronological ageing – is something we can’t prevent. Time. As we get older, our cell clock ticks more slowly; our metabolism slows down. Our bodies are less efficient than they were.

We can minimise the effects of time and UV light by intensive moisturisation and other cosmetic products.Over time, the signs are papery thin skin, pale or yellowish colour, general sagging and puckering. Some of this is a result of changes in the skin itself, some due to loss of fat, muscle or bone below the skin. It’s most obvious on areas of the body that are usually covered up, and not regularly exposed to UV.

So back to the second most popular question. Do those products actually work?

Well simple moisturisation goes a long way to changing the way light reflects from the surface and superficial layers below. In your early years this may be enough to get by.

As we age, looking younger needs a heavy duty moisturiser working with more powerful ingredients such as AHAs, retinol or peptides:


You will probably remember AHAs – alpha hydroxyl acids such as glycolic or lactic acid – sometimes called peels. In a cosmetic surgeon’s hands these peels can be very deep (and painful). In cosmetic products the levels are much lower and they act more like chemical exfoliators.

AHAs can help make a gradual change in the way the epidermis renews itself,  revealing younger cells at the surface and working against the thinning caused by UV and ageing. A word of warning: using AHAs can make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so I’d advise a moisturiser with at least SPF 15.

As protection against UV is a good idea to reduce its premature ageing effect, you might want to use anti-UV products anyway.  But that’s a separate subject and we’ll come back to it later.

See also  LVL: for perfect eyelashes


This is the strongest and most unstable form of vitamin A permitted in cosmetic products. It is not for everyone; some people find that it makes their skin scaly over the first few days. This is part of its action, and if it doesn’t irritate your skin it’s worth bearing with it; this will pass as the retinol starts to work.

Retinol, like AHAs, subtly but gradually “normalises’ the way the skin renews and repairs itself. The good news here is that recent studies suggest – in the right product and used for long enough – that even intrinsic aged skin can benefit from retinol.


Peptides have been a “magic ingredient” for several years now. Not my words. I’ve lost count of the number of times journalists have declared Matrixyl to be the latest one. Matrixyl is the trade name for one peptide that has found success in products such as Olay Regenerist, No7 Protect & Perfect and other ranges.
It works, but Matryxil does not turn back time and does not fundamentally reverse all the ageing processes in skin. It is a cosmetic; it changes the appearance of the skin.
I need to declare an interest here; I worked on Protect & Perfect for Boots between 2000 until 2007 when the BBC Horizon caused a national – and international – sensation. It does work; over time a decrease in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles has been demonstrated.

This is important to understand. Anti-ageing moisturisers can do a lot to change the appearance of the skin, measurably and noticeably. Holding back the speed of change can create the appearance of younger skin.

The other important point to understand is that you can get an instant change in appearance  – without a deeper change in the skin – by using good foundation products. But it takes longer for moisturisers alone to have a significant instant effect. The most effective anti-ageing skincare needs around four weeks before you even start seeing a difference – so don’t expect rapid changes from moisturisers alone.

If you really want rapid and or fundamental effects, then surgical intervention will be your route and that is not something I can comment on.

UV Protection

If UV is the main cause of ageing, why not protect from UV so you won’t need a “magic” ingredient?

See also  Why looking after your lips is important...

I largely agree that UV protection is the best route – I badger my family to protect from spring to autumn – but…. I’m going to be controversial.

My opinion – offered to friends and relatives and based on my reading of the literature and understanding of how SPF moisturisers work – is …

In the UK, during our winters, it is not ESSENTIAL to max-out on UV protection unless you have really UV reactive skin (e.g. red hair fair skin).

Getting UV protection right is all about your own skin type, your behaviour and the weather. If you burn VERY easily then a moisturiser with SPF 8-15 during sunny days in winter will suffice.

“What about UVA?” I hear some of you more informed readers ask.

Well yes UVA is around in winter too, but good anti-oxidant protection and /or broad spectrum (UVA & UVB) moisturisers will help – you will not need SPF50!

In winter, focus on preventing drying first – I recommend using night creams as they tend to be richer – and if the sun does get strong, or you have very fair skin, bring out the SPF/UVA moisturiser. The drying effects of winter are as important in our climate as UV protection in somewhere like Florida. There they need to focus on UV!

One final observation. We often use still photographs to demonstrate signs of ageing, but it’s when you see someone’s facial expressions change – that’s what gives their age away.

And what keeps skin flexible so that your smile creases disappear more quickly? Moisturisers! So despite the magic ingredients and the UV protection – I hope you’re getting the message – moisturisation really does have a lot of benefits.

So, to sum it up, if you want to avoid looking older before you have to, don’t smoke, make sure you eat well, avoid stress, protect against UV, give the “magic ingredients” a try to see if they suit you, and most of all, use a good moisturiser.

And to come back to what I learned earlier – attractiveness and beauty are two very different things. It’s been a privilege to have a career as a skin biologist but I’d rather see a smiling face with character heading towards me than a miserable one with perfect skin.

About Steve Barton

I'm a skin biologist fascinated by the wonders of this organ that keeps us apart from the outside world. I'm semi-retired, continuing to keep a hand in cosmetic product development by working in consultancy and education. When not talking skin you'll find me listening to or playing music; or I'll be finding hills to walk, photos to take, or sketches and short stories to create; unless I'm distracted by my 2 granddaughters! I can be found on Twitter @Skin_Thinking