Hormonal changes in midlife and beyond definitely affect your looks. The first sign? Not wrinkles, but loss of volume. In the first five years after menopause you lose 30 percent of your collagen (the fibers that give substance to skin). Production of elastin, which keeps skin stretchy and bouncy, also starts to decline. This means skin starts to lose its moisture, structure, thickness and firmness.
But skin isn’t the only thing that thins. Hormone-induced bone loss makes your skull literally shrink, and your facial fat starts to shift, too, so that you become hollow around the eyes and cheeks as fat sinks to the jawline, creating jowls and a gaunt appearance. This is why, though a lithe body is youthful, after the age of forty, weight loss of more than 10 lbs can make you look older, while a few extra pounds makes you look younger. Fat is a natural filler!
Hormone replacement can help reverse skin aging. A study in the British Medical Journal showed that postmenopausal women who had estrogen and testosterone therapy had 48 percent more collagen than women who hadn’t had hormone therapy. A University of Vienna study in postmenopausal women found that estrogen improved skin elasticity and firmness after just six months of treatment, and both wrinkle depth and pore size decreased by more than 60 percent. This can make women look around four years younger than they otherwise would.
Of course, external factors also contribute to aging. A poor diet, lack of skin-friendly vitamins, bad fats and sugary carbs will leave skin looking gray and old. Smoking, too, is a disaster for skin, activating genes responsible for a skin enzyme called collagenase, which breaks down collagen in the skin. It also reduces blood flow to the skin, which is why smokers have more wrinkles and tend to have a grayish pallor, rather than the kind of rosy glow we all want. In fact, it’s been found that every ten years of smoking adds two and a half years to your appearance.
Stress and unhappiness can also add years to your appearance. A plastic surgeon tracked the faces of his patients over many years and found that a stressful event could accelerate aging by up to five years in just one. Divorce or illness in particular made women look visibly older by around eighteen months, partly due to the effects of cortisol.
The final major factor is sun damage. UVA rays cause elastin, another fibrous skin component, to reorient itself from its normal position to one that’s parallel to the surface of your skin, where it begins to reproduce in unusually high amounts. The presence of this abnormal elastin causes a secretion of enzymes called metalloproteinases. These enzymes destroy collagen and elastin by, in effect, chopping them into small pieces, making skin saggy and baggy, so that it falls into folds and wrinkles.
UVA rays also trigger abnormal melanin production, which causes brown spots. The best prevention? Keep your skin out of the sun, don’t burn and wear a broad-spectrum SPF of at least fifty in strong sunshine, and SPF15 the rest of the time.
Broad spectrum means it protects against UVB, which burns, and UVA, which ages you. Look for the letters UVA in a circle, which indicates good UVA protection, or the PA+++ symbol, which was developed in Asia to rate UVA protection. PA+++ is more protective than P+.
New formulations also protect against infrared, which heats the skin and dilates tiny blood vessels, making redness and rosacea skin conditions worse.
Micronized powder formulations can be a great way to layer on sunscreen during the day, especially if you wear makeup that would be ruined by a cream. An antioxidant serum containing vitamin C, or a mix of vitamins A, E and C, worn underneath, will boost the effectiveness of your sunscreen. Both Susie and Leah have a confession here: “We both love the sun. We enjoy the feeling of warmth on our skin” – warmth is a proven antidepressant – “and enjoy the hormone and serotonin boost that warmth and light give us, and we need that vitamin D boost. We love the lift that bright light gives to our mood” – so important for melatonin production, too – “but even if we sneak in a bit of sunbathing, we take great care never to burn, and always to keep our faces out of the way of those damaging rays.”
This advice ties in with that of the major health organizations. The British Association of Dermatologists, Cancer Research UK, Diabetes UK, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the National Heart Forum, the National Osteoporosis Society and the Primary Care Dermatology Society all suggest going out in the middle of the day for a few minutes without sunscreen while exposing as much of your body as possible. You should not redden your skin or burn. Bikinis optional.