How Everyday Stressors Can Cause Skin Aging—and What You Can Do About It

Woman outside in the sun

Your skin goes through a lot in 24 hours. From internal aggressors (like poor nutrition or your body’s stress response) to external aggressors (like harmful UV rays and air pollution), it seems like there’s something that’s trying to prematurely age your skin at all hours of the day.

These internal and external factors are collectively known as the exposome—and they can wreak havoc on your complexion.

But there’s good news. If you understand what causes skin aging, you can take steps to protect yourself throughout the day and keep premature aging to a minimum.

Let’s take a look at a day in the life of your skin, the exposome aggressors that threaten your complexion and how to keep your skin looking radiant, healthy and youthful.

6:00 a.m.

You wake up after a restless, unsatisfying few hours of sleep. And unfortunately, that lack of sleep isn’t doing good things for your complexion.

“While you sleep, your body goes through the natural cycle of cellular repair, replacing dead cells and restoring new ones,” says cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green. “Inadequate sleep prevents the body from going through this natural process, which leaves the skin looking sallow.”

Your cortisol levels also spike when you’re lacking enough high-quality shut-eye, which can cause additional damage to the skin. “[An] elevation in cortisol levels…inhibits the skins’ fibroblast functions causing matrix metalloproteinases,” says Green. These enzymes “accelerate the breakdown in the skin’s collagen and elastin fiber, which results in premature aging.”

Not getting enough sleep is one factor that contributes to skin aging. But luckily, there’s a simple solution—and that’s getting more sleep!

Getting enough high-quality sleep will help decrease cortisol levels and allow your skin to go through the necessary “restore and repair” cycle it needs to look and feel its best. So not only will you wake feeling rested and refreshed, but your skin will look better, too.

8:00 a.m.

You’re going through your morning getting ready for the day, and you realize you’re running late. You might be tempted to skip your a.m. sun protection to save time—but fight that temptation and make time.

“The sun is the number one cause of wrinkles, with dozens of studies documenting the impact,” says Green. In addition to causing wrinkles, sun exposure can also cause hyperpigmentation, increase your risk of skin cancer and prematurely age the skin.

There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. If you want to prevent sun damage, you need to make sun protection a priority—and that starts before you even head outside.

Make sure to apply sunscreen to your face every morning well before you leave the house—and pop your sunscreen in your bag so you can reapply throughout the day. “It takes approximately 15 minutes for your skin to absorb the sunscreen and protect you,” says Green. “Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours to remain protected, or immediately after swimming or excessively sweating.”

Also, try to stay indoors between the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; avoiding the sun when it’s at its strongest will go a long way in helping to prevent sun damage and premature skin aging. “By avoiding sun exposure during [these] peak hours, sun exposure may be reduced by as much as 60 percent,” says Green.

If you can’t avoid being outside during the most sunshine-filled hours of the day, Green recommends being diligent with your sunscreen application, staying in the shade and covering up with protective clothing, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.

12:00 p.m.

It’s noon. You’ve been working all morning and you’re so hungry, you’re ready to eat just about anything.

But your nutritional choices are extremely important when it comes to keeping your skin looking and feeling its best—so instead of going for something that might be quick and easy (but less than nutritious), try making more conscious choices that will benefit your skin health.

“Consuming sugary foods and unhealthy fats can wreak havoc on your skin, causing premature aging and acne,” says Green. “Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids—such as fish, nuts and olive oil—will help cellular turnover and increased collagen production, giving you radiant and smoother skin…[as] omega-3 fatty acids moisturize the skin and protect it from UV damage that is often associated with premature wrinkling.”

6:00 p.m. 

You’re driving home from work and you roll down the window to get some fresh air. But the truth is, while the air might seem fresh, it may be full of pollutants. Multiple studies have tied air pollution to premature skin aging. But you can’t avoid the air (and, therefore, air pollution), so how can you protect yourself and your skin?

“Cleaning your skin and applying antioxidant-rich products and sunscreen will protect the skin from environmental stressors,” says Green. Look for skincare products that are rich in antioxidants like vitamins C, E, A or CoQ-10, which can prevent free radical damage and keep pollution-related premature skin aging at bay.

7:30 p.m.

If you’re the kind of person who brings work stress home with you (all those unread emails!), it’s doing more than putting a damper your evening—it could also be affecting your skin. And while this is true for all skin types, it’s especially true if you’re prone to acne.

“While stress does not directly cause acne, it can exacerbate it,” says Green. “Acne is an inflammatory disease exacerbated by hormones released during stress, which increases inflammation. Acne caused by stress is usually accompanied by redness, itching and an increased number of blackheads and whiteheads.”

If you’re noticing you’re having acne flare-ups—even though you’re cleansing and taking care of your skin—stress might be to blame. Try exploring some stress-management techniques (like deep breathing, yoga or mindfulness meditation) to help keep your stress under control and your skin looking its best.

9:30 p.m.

It’s almost time for bed—which means it’s time to get into your bedtime skin care routine. And while you might think your products are improving your skin, if you’re using them incorrectly, they might be doing more harm than good.

Aliesh Pierce, celebrity esthetician and founder of Ask Aliesh, an e-learning site for skin care professionals, says overexfoliating is a common skin stressor. “Acids make skin photosensitive, and scrubs can cause little fissures in the skin. Both disrupt the barrier,” she explains. Always follow a product’s directions to avoid overuse—more isn’t always better!

The Best Products to Protect Your Skin (and Hair) Throughout the Day

Now that you know what your skin is up against, here are some products to help protect you against damaging exposome factors and keep your complexion looking healthy and youthful.

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