How to Turn Back Time
Anti-Aging Skin SecretsBy April Long for ELLE
It's a proposition that sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel: Would I like to see a photo of my future? Specifically, a snapshot of what I'm going to look like in about 10 years — wrinkles, brown spots, and all? For a morbidly curious beauty writer, it's a dream offer. Which is why I find myself, along with a few other prepared-to-be-traumatized ELLE editors, sitting in front of the Advanced Aging Simulation machine at Canfield Scientific, a high-tech medical research facility in Fairfield, New Jersey.
The machine's software is based on a study by Greg Hillebrand, PhD, of P&G Beauty and Science, published in the June issue of the British Journal of Dermatology, which tracked the long-term development of facial wrinkles and brown spots in 122 women originally recruited in a Los Angeles shopping mall. At the beginning of the study, the subjects (whose ages ranged from 10 to 70) were photographed both smiling and relaxed. Eight years later, when they were photographed again with a neutral expression, the temporary smile lines in most of the women's original grinning pictures had become etched into the skin as permanent (or, in the reassuring parlance of the study, “persistent”) wrinkles. In short, Hillebrand proved that the repetitive muscle contractions we make when forming facial expressions will eventually wear creases into our skin like those in old leather gloves. How's that for news to wipe the smile off your face?
As I steady my chin on the headrest of the aging simulator (imagine a large, brightly lit camera portal), Hillebrand explains how it works: The crinkles from my smile will be overlaid on a photograph in which I'm pulling my best poker face. This will then be combined with data from an unforgiving UV image that shows subdermal sun damage, and voilà: My skin's fortune will be told. The resulting picture, which fast-forwards my midthirties face to what it might look like when I'm in my late forties, isn't so much the precipitous plunge into crone-faced decrepitude I had imagined, but it's still not pretty. “Everyone's wrinkles are as unique to them as their fingerprints,” Hillebrand says. “In 10 to 15 years, you'll have this guy coming across here…” He points to a road map of lines under my future eyes. “And this guy here. And this guy here.” I stifle a sob. “Hey, look on the bright side,” he says. “Now you know exactly where stuff is going to happen.”
Forewarned is forearmed. So if we can predict how we're going to age, then might it be possible to delay — even turn back — the process? Hillebrand moves a toggle on the screen toward the word younger and, Benjamin Button-like, the image of my face ages backward, becoming smoother and brighter than it is in real life. “If you take care of your skin properly, you can reverse direction a bit,” he says. “Then you'll start with a new baseline, and that can put you on a different time line.”
The first step toward changing one's wrinkle destiny is the most basic: moisturizer. Hillebrand's study found that having dry skin more than doubles the rate at which lines will develop. That means a 28-year-old with dry skin will have a 52-percent increase in wrinkles by the time she's 36, whereas a woman of the same age with a well-hydrated dermis will show only a 22-percent increase. The quickest creasers in Hillebrand's study were also those with the fairest skin — several African-American women showed no change at all over eight years — so those of us with pasty complexions should take extra care to slather on sunscreen if we want to put the brakes on collagen breakdown (and prevent telltale age spots). The third factor to play a role in the speed of wrinkle development was skin pH: Women with a more alkaline stratum corneum (that's the outermost layer of the epidermis) showed more advanced signs of aging than those whose skin was more acidic. “You need a swab test to determine your skin's pH,” Hillebrand says, “but it's a good idea to avoid using soap on the face, as it can make the skin more alkaline.”
For those not satisfied with the agefighting potential of mere lotions and potions, Hillebrand's research has further implications: Use of Botox can be preventative. Quite simply, if wrinkles form along the fault lines created by muscular contractions, they're less likely to appear if those muscles are unable to move. Furthermore, according to Hillebrand, “lessening the repeated mechanical stress may even allow repair of persistent wrinkles that have already formed.”
Miami- and New York-based dermatologist Fredric Brandt, MD, believes that “if you start getting Botox early, you can prevent a lot of those lines from setting in,” but says patients' use of sunscreen, moisturizer, and antioxidants will play the biggest role in how well their skin holds up over the years. “I like to use the analogy that you can't just get your teeth cleaned, you have to brush them every day.”
Ultimately, though, “what makes the face look older isn't just wrinkles and uneven tone, it's loss of volume,” Brandt says. “It's the falling of the cheeks and eyebrows, the hollowing around the eyes and the sagging jawline. As we age, the contour of the face changes from a heart shape to an upright triangle, where the lower face becomes fuller than the upper face.”
Brandt—the miracle worker behind many of Hollywood's has-she-or-hasn'tshe ageless faces—addresses volume loss with an arsenal of fillers: usually starting by injecting the cheek area to lift up the face and diminish the nasolabial folds. “I've seen fillers take 15 to 20 years off of women's faces,” he says. Indeed, a study published in Dermatologic Surgery in March showed that women ages 42 to 59 who had received a single multisyringe treatment with hyaluronic acid fillers were perceived to be an average of 6.1 to 7.3 years younger than their actual age.
But can injections really establish that alluring “new baseline” Hillebrand spoke of, or are they just holding the inevitable at bay? “We know that hyaluronic acid fillers stimulate the body's own fibroblasts to produce collagen,” Brandt says. “So if you combine that with sunscreen and good skin care, you can change the way you age—and look younger over time.” An anecdotal case in point: 52-yearold Helen,* who has been reaping the benefits of Brandt's genius since she was 27, says, “My friends thought I was crazy going in for fillers when I was in my twenties and thirties, but now they're getting lines that I never did—presumably because I kept up maintenance over the years.” She believes her regimen of twice-yearly injections of Botox and Restylane (“to raise my cheeks and tighten my jawline”) plus nightly applications of Retin-A have had an aggregate effect: “The older I get, the less I feel like I need to do.” Another patient, 56-year-old Linda,* who looks in photos to be barely over 40, is convinced that her Dr. Brandt-prescribed protocol—topical Tri-Luma treatment to fade brown spots, Restylane to fill the hollows under her eyes and plump her cheeks every five months—has altered her aging arc. “I can't say for sure that I look younger than I did 10 years ago,” she says, “but I definitely look better.”
As for my own time line? I'm hanging on to my Advanced Aging Simulation photo not as a harbinger of doom, but as a constant reminder to be vigilant about the way I treat my skin. I'll definitely be flashing a smile at myself in the mirror every time I apply moisturizer and adding another dollop on the lines that come up, and those projected age spots had better watch their backs. But I'm also taking comfort in the results of a 2008 Yale School of Medicine study in which researchers found that people with crow's-feet were perceived as being happier than those without any lines at all. Sure, it's tempting to try to walk around stoically expressionless and wrinkle-free, but if you've spent your life smiling, maybe the fact that it's written all over your face really isn't such a bad thing after all.
To read the rest of the article on turning back the clock, click here
Can you turn back time?Model: Nasser Mecil; clock: Art Partner/Getty Images