Combating Harmful Lifestyle Effects on the Skin


It’s no secret that a healthy lifestyle is essential to feeling and looking good. Diet, exercise and stress management are essential considerations for whole-body wellness. Unfortunately, in a fast-paced culture that consists of multitasking at lightning speed, people often neglect their health by making poor lifestyle choices. The skin is the largest organ of the body and yet often the most neglected. Everyone wants beautiful skin, but those who suffer from imperfections often focus solely on quick fixes before considering the internal and external factors, and long-term commitments to improve the skin’s appearance. The role of skin care professionals is not only to help improve the skin’s appearance, but also to educate clients about environmental factors, such as lifestyle choices, that detrimentally impact healthy skin.

Eat healthy

The American diet is full of simple sugars, carbohydrates and “bad fats,” including saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in whole milk, cheese, red meats, poultry skin and even in some plant foods, such as palm and coconut oils. Trans fats are man-made, created to allow liquid fat to solidify and last longer before spoiling to increase the stability and shelf life of snack foods. They are most commonly seen in processed foods, listed on labels as hydrogenated oils. Most fried foods and processed meats, chips and margarine contain high levels of these trans fats and are associated with triggering inflammation. Inflammation is a major culprit in cancer, aging, poor skin health and disease.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), saturated fats should be reduced to less than 10% of daily calories. Alternatives to these harmful fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are considered “good fats” because they are known to lower internal cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated fats are found in olives, olive oil, peanuts and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are found in corn, soybeans and fish. Fish, in particular, contains high amounts of the polyunsaturated fat omega-3, which has natural anti-inflammatory benefits. Oral supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids is quite common. These supplements not only have internal health benefits, but also have been shown to increase moisture levels in the skin. Other nutritional supplements such as lycopene, found in tomatoes; coenzyme Q10; minerals such as zinc; and botanicals such as green tea all may be beneficial to the skin’s appearance by reducing inflammation—however, clinical trials supporting these claims are lacking.

The intake of sugar and simple carbohydrates also should be limited in order to avoid negative effects on the skin’s appearance. Soda, white bread and candy raise blood sugar levels rapidly, which leads to inflammation and, eventually, cellular injury. Excess sugar consumption is speculated to cause glycation, which is the result of sugars attacking the body’s cells and attaching to proteins. Glycation may result in sallow, dull and eventually sagging skin. Collagen and elastin are proteins responsible for keeping the skin plump and youthful.

Keeping the body hydrated also is important to maintain a youthful appearance. Those with diets high in salt, alcohol and caffeine may experience a lack of hydration that can be visible on the skin. For this reason, cutting back on these dehydrating substances and increasing water intake is vital for healthy skin. It is recommended that a person drink 8–10 glasses of water a day, as well as an additional two glasses for every glass of alcohol or caffeine. For clients with poor nutritional habits, provide and encourage the use of treatments and products specifically to put them on the path toward better skin health.

Minimize stress

Stress has been shown to have many adverse reactions in the body. Besides anxiety, depression and illness, stress can have harmful effects on the skin. Existing skin conditions including psoriasis and rosacea can be aggravated from an increase in stress. However, the most common visible presentation of stress is an acne breakout. Stress can increase sebum production through hormone responses and cause inflammation: two of the main factors that lead to acne.

Long-term effects of stress on the skin also can be caused from an increase in cortisol. This hormone depletes the amount of hyaluronic acid, the ground substance for many structures of the skin, and leads to dehydration and dry skin. The combination of the effects from cortisol and inflammation can lead to the breakdown of collagen and elastin, resulting in fine lines and wrinkles.

Stress should be managed regularly by clients. Routine exercise and adequate sleep are vital to reducing stress. Exercise has been shown to improve self-confidence, self-esteem and the ability to handle stressful situations. Lack of sleep also may have a direct effect on stress management. Intuitively, if physical stores are being used up by the body to maintain alertness, then resources are being diverted from the skin and other systems. Mood is clearly affected by sleep deprivation as well, and appearance is negatively affected by mood. If clients are serious about looking their best, valuable sleep and regular exercise are necessary. As a skin care professional, it is not only important to discuss the negative effects that stress can have on the skin, but also to assist your clients in developing relaxation techniques. During treatments, ensure that the client receives a relaxing massage. If a facial massage cannot be performed due to protocol, a shoulder and neck massage can be substituted. You might also recommend manual lymphatic drainage, a technique that assists in overall body relaxation, working on the sympathetic nervous system, which is part of the body’s reaction that causes flight or fight. In addition, the use of essential oils, such as lavender, chamomile and ylang-ylang during treatments can help to induce a relaxed state of mind. Playing soft, soothing music and dimming the lights in the room create a calming environment and ambiance. Make every effort to ensure that, from the moment clients step into your skin care facility, they enter an oasis of serenity.

Don’t smoke

Awareness of the negative effects of smoking has grown. It is common knowledge that smoking is detrimental to health, leading to various medical conditions and diseases. It is also bad for the skin. Cigarette smoke is a vasoconstrictor that dramatically decreases oxygen supply to the blood. This affects the levels of nourishment and oxygen available to the skin, which is needed for cellular renewal and repair. The immediate effects of asphyxiation include a visible yellow or gray tone with very little radiance or glow. The long-term effects lead to collagen breakdown, and skin disorders, including psoriasis and squamous cell carcinoma.

Smoking also is associated with poor wound-healing. Lack of circulation and oxygen can dramatically slow down healing processes in the body, including the skin. Therefore, it is especially important to eliminate smoking before an invasive procedure, such as cosmetic surgery or deep ablative skin-resurfacing treatments. These procedures, performed by medical professionals, actually can cause more harm than good if the skin’s healing capabilities are compromised. Skin care professionals should also be cautious when performing chemical exfoliation treatments.

It has been said that one puff of cigarette smoke can produce millions of free radicals. Oxidative stress caused by free radicals is one of the key factors in the aging process and leads to mutated cells that can affect every organ of the body. Toxic chemicals in cigarettes also can cause congestion within the pores, typically seen as whiteheads or closed comedones. This congestion may be caused by a lack of circulation and accumulation of secondhand smoke on the skin.

To combat the harmful effects of cigarette smoke, antioxidants should be taken regularly. Some of the best known antioxidants are vitamin C and vitamin E. Vitamin C protects the skin from excess free radicals; it is a necessary contributor to collagen synthesis and promotes wound-healing. Vitamin E can help the body fight against heart disease and inflammation. By increasing vitamin E levels in the body, it is believed that the skin will not sustain as much damage and that it will repair injured cells faster.

It is also important to recommend topical antioxidants to protect the skin from excess free radicals that are caused by smoke. Vitamin C in the form of L-ascorbic acid has shown many benefits to protect the skin. Vitamin E, resveratrol and green tea are other ingredients that can reduce oxidative stress in the skin when applied topically.

Educate your client on the effects smoking can have on their skin. Emphasize the fact that quitting is the best way to avoid the toxic effects, not only for their skin, but also for their overall health. Help long-time smokers reduce the impact smoking has on their skin with customized treatments and products that address their conditions.

Provide education

Educate clients on the importance of keeping the body healthy for the best overall appearance. What clients eat, whether they manage stress and how they treat their body will be reflected in their skin. Talk with your clients and empower them to make better decisions about their lifestyle habits.

More than 80% of visible aging in the skin is due to extrinsic factors—environmental factors to which the body is exposed. If clients have concerns about conditions in their skin that may be related to these external factors, talk to them about why these things are happening and how making relevant changes not only improves their appearance, but also their health.

Ingredient technology and treatment innovations provide new capabilities for rectifying imperfections in the skin. (See Treatments and Ingredients to Rejuvenate Skin.) Use these to your advantage for optimal results in your spa and product recommendations for clients to use at home. However, the method of prevention instead of correction will prove to have the best outcome. Educating your clients on how to care for themselves inside and out will always provide the best results and lead to healthy, beautiful skin.

Terri Wojak is a licensed esthetician with more than 16 years of experience and has knowledge of all aspects of the skin care industry. She is the director and lead educator at True U in Chicago. She has trained more than 1,000 estheticians and medical professionals in the art of advanced skin care with a specialization in techniques used in a cosmetic medical setting.

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