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The cardinal rule of skin care-Do no harm
Do no harm to your skin. This may sound like a cliche, but if you were to remember just one thing about intelligent skin care, this should be it. You'd be surprised, but many (and often most) visible signs of skin aging are the result of harmful external factors rather than the natural aging process. Therefore, the easiest, cheapest and most effective step you can take to jumpstart your skin care strategy is to minimize avoidable external damage. By doing so, you will create a foundation for effective anti-aging treatments. Otherwise all your skin care efforts (except perhaps radical plastic surgery) are likely to bring minimal results.
Unfortunately, when it comes to complex biological systems, including the skin, things are rarely as simple as they appear. To avoid skin damage you need to know what the likely causes are. You also need to realize that skin damage does not always cause pain or even visible irritation, and so may keep accumulating at low levels unnoticed. Below is the summary of the most common causes of skin damage and how to avoid it.
Most people know that UV-rays from the sun and tanning beds contribute to wrinkles and skin aging as well as increase the risk of skin cancer. What most people don't know is that many sunscreens do not adequately protect from skin aging and that staying out of direct sunlight will prevent only part of sun damage. Since sun damage is partly irreversible, it should be prevented as much as possible. See our article about sun protection.
Harsh detergents, particularly the so-called ionic detergents, may be harmful for the skin. They are called ionic because their molecules become charged when dissolved in water. The most common and ubiquitous ionic detergents are sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate (both acronymed SLS) and their analogs, such as ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate and others. In facts, SLS is often used to produce experimental skin damage in clinical studies of skin protectors. As they are powerful detergents, SLS and analogs are widely used in household and body care products, such as shampoos, soaps, dishwashing liquids, laundry detergents, and so forth. (FYI, even regular soap contains primarily ionic detergents albeit not as strong as SLS).
Read the ingredient on all products that come in contact with your skin. If they contain ionic detergents, eliminate or minimize such contact by using similar products with nonionic detergents, alternative cleansing methods, wearing gloves when washing dishes, etc. For example, if you shampoo or soap has SLS or its analogs, you can switch to non-irritating baby shampoo and glycerin-based moisturizing soap.
Chlorine and hot water
Hot showers and baths are feel like good thing. Your skin may disagree. Chlorine in tap water is an oxidative agent (that's how it kills bacteria) and may cause some skin damage. The hotter the water, the greater the damage because the rate of chemical reactions increases with temperature. Limit bats and showers to once a day or less and don't soak for too long. Make it warm, not hot.
Skin irritants may inflict skin damage in two ways. First, they may directly damage skin matrix and cells. Second, they may trigger an inflammatory and/or allergic reaction in the skin, which, in turn, can cause skin damage by releasing destructive free radicals and the so-called metalloproteinanses or MMP (the enzymes that degrade skin matrix chopping up collagen and elastin). Oftentimes the damage caused by the skin's reaction is greater then the damage caused by the irritant. This is particularly true for people with sensitive skin, whose skin develops inflammatory and/or allergic reaction in response to even very mild irritants. Everyone should try to avoid skin irritants. However, people with sensitive skin should be particularly careful.
Inflammation is a reaction of the body in response to various types of damage, including infection, trauma, abrasions, burns and so forth. Occasionally, inflammation is a result of an autoimmune response (a malfunction of the immune system), in which case it may exist without external cause. Inflammation is an important and necessary part of the healing process. However, prolonged and/or excessive inflammation is damaging to the skin or any other organ where it occurs. In particular, inflammation causes a release of large amounts of damaging free radicals and MMP, which, among other things, accelerates the aging process. While occasional short-term and self-limiting inflammation from cuts, abrasions or cosmetic procedures should not be a major concern, chronic inflammation has to be dealt with.
The most common cause of skin inflammation is acne. Chronic acne should be treated. Keep in mind that some acne treatments (e.g. benzoyl peroxide) are irritants and can themselves cause skin damage if used improperly or excessively. Treatment should never cause more damage then the disease. Work with your dermatologist to find an effective nonirritating or minimally irritating treatment appropriate in your case. Don't settle for treatment that improves your acne but leaves your skin chronically irritated.
Other common skin conditions causing chronic inflammation include eczema (exema), psoriasis, dermatitis and inflammatory form of rosacea.
Puffiness in the eye area is a common manifestation of mild facial edema. Edema is a term for the excess fluid accumulation in soft tissue manifested by swelling. Edema stretches the skin and eventually leads to wrinkles and sagging. The eye area is particularly prone to edema due to the dense capillary network and lack of fat padding. It is important to know that significant edema (especially if not confined to face) may be a sign of a health problem, such as an allergy, kidney insufficiency or liver disease. It has to be investigated by a physician to rule out medical conditions.
A more common situation, however, is morning puffiness (mild facial edema that occasionally occurs in the morning and goes away during the day) caused by lifestyle factors (such as lack of sleep, alcohol consumption and others) rather than a health condition. It is important to minimize morning puffiness not so much because it is a transient nuisance on awakening but because it is one of the biggest contributors to the aging of the eye area.
Certain facial expressions if repeated often enough, cause the so-called motion wrinkles. In particular, squinting creates motion wrinkles known as crow's feet while frowning causes forehead wrinkles known as frown lines. Many people squint or frown without knowing it. Ask people who see you every day whether you tend to squint or frown. The first step towards reducing squinting and frowning is being aware of it. The next step is to develop a habit / reflex to relax you face, especially when you feel that you are beginning to squint or frown. Also, squinting is common among people who are nearsighted and either do not wear glasses or have insufficiently strong ones. If you don't see clearly in the distance when your eyes are relaxed, chances are you tend to squint. Adjust your eyewear to ensure clear vision.
Overuse of makeup
Makeup products often contain potential skin irritants. For the sake of long-term skin health, it is best to use makeup in moderation, particularly in the eye area. Long-lasting makeup may be particularly harmful because it tends to contain harsher chemicals and also requires highly irritating solvents for its removal.
Overuse of skin care products
Indiscriminate use of multiple skin care products may have significant drawbacks. First, some products are simply ineffective: not only are they a waste of money but they may also prevent optimal absorption of the effective products. Second, some products can contain ingredients with potential for low-level long-term skin damage. Finally, many products with scientifically proven skin benefits, such as retinoids, vitamin C or alpha-hydroxy acids, may cause skin irritation and/or damage if misused or overused. Be very selective regarding what products you use and how you use them. An extra time spent on research would not only save you money, but may help avoid unnecessary skin damage.
Excessive cleansing and exfoliation
Some skincare activities may do more harm then good when misused or overused. In particular, excessive cleansing strips the skin of protective sebum and may lead to dryness, skin sensitivity and other problems. Avoid cleansing with harsh detergents (see above) and alcohol-based solutions. (Alcohol-based cleansers / toners may be useful for people with very oily skin, but are too drying for everyone else.) Avoid washing your skin with hot water. Avoid cleansing and/or washing your skin more than two times a day.
Another overused practice is exfoliation. Occasional exfoliation may be useful: it refreshes the skin surface, increases circulation and brightens the appearance. However, exfoliation is a potentially damaging procedure: you use controlled destruction to strip off the top layer of skin cells. Ideally you remove one the dead cells on the surface of the skin a.k.a. stratum corneum. However, if you exfoliate too frequently or too aggressively, then you also remove and/or cause damage to living cells as well. Eventually that may produce long-term skin damage and exhaust the skin's long-term capacity to regenerate.
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