Recently, my sister texted me a photo of us two that has to be at least ten years old. I can tell how old the photo is by looking at a couple of things: my brows—I was sporting nineties-appropriate, now cringeworthy, over-plucked eyebrows; my hair—after dying my hair blonde I was told I looked a bit like Eva Mendes, so I vowed to remain blonde forever; my skin—naturally even in tone and spot-free, as it hasn't been in a few years. The image quality is pretty awful, but I know for a fact that I wasn't wearing foundation—I hadn't discovered it yet. My skin was apparently just naturally clear and smooth.
What I didn't know at that time is that my skin was not going to stay flawless for too long. On my way to turning thirty, sun spots, fine lines and breakouts began to appear all at once, as if they had secretly made a plot to sabotage my skin. Day by day, I became more frustrated. I mean, really? Weren't breakouts supposed to happen during puberty?!
I became a frequent visitor of all the major dermatology websites and skincare blogs. I read several books and went through countless (mostly useless) products—anti-aging, anti-acne—you name them, before I finally got a clue as to what happened to my skin and how to properly care for it. For the most part, I had to make lifestyle changes and stick with them before seeing some improvements, although some of the damage could not be reversed.
1. Don't smoke!
Cigarettes have finally gained the bad reputation they deserve, but growing up in Italy, smoking was very common and allowed pretty much everywhere, including indoors. It is safe to say that much of the skin damage I experienced was caused by my gasp almost 13 years of cigarette smoking. According to Dr. Lowell Dale, premature wrinkles can show up after only 10 years of smoking. Nicotine impairs blood flow to the skin, depriving it of oxygen and essential nutrients. Moreover, cigarettes contain thousands of chemicals that may damage collagen and elastin, "which are fibers that give your skin its strength and elasticity." People who smoke also have a tendency to develop lower lid bags, as smoking accelerates the sagging of the skin under the eyes. The good news is that a few years after quitting, in spite of the fact that I've gotten older, the skin under my eyes is looking better than when I was still smoking.
2. Practice Sun Protection
In Italy, everyone seems to love a good tan—that I just got back from my weekend in Capri kind of look. But beside the tan factor, I just really enjoyed sunbathing (perhaps because of the endorphine boost that it provides?). Although my complexion is the typical Mediterranean one that easily tans and hardly ever burns, I totally overlooked the time I spent in the sun from my childhood to age 25.
In my defense, sunscreens with high SPF were not recommended with the same urgency of today. Predictably, as I approached my thirties, the sun damage began to show up all at once in the form of sun spots and fine lines. One study estimated that up to 80% of visible facial aging signs are caused by UV exposure. I now wear SPF 30 all year long, and wear a wide brim hat and sunglasses when I'm outdoors. It's never too late to start protecting your skin from UV rays, but if you start early, you'll thank yourself for it later on.
3. Sleep More, and Better
In my early twenties, I thought that late nights out would only make my dark circles a bit darker, and that a little extra concealer the morning after would do the trick—easy peasy. What I didn't know was that by giving up many hours of sleep as often as I did, I was speeding up my skin's aging process and causing damage that could not be concealed. Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality have been found to potentially "weaken the skin's ability to repair itself at night" from the environmental damage, such as sun exposure. Seven to nine hours of sleep, with an ideal bedtime before 11pm, ensures that you get all the repairing benefits you need for your skin. In other news, beauty sleep is not a myth.
4. Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods
At my parent's house, there was always a Food Network-worthy, homemade meal ready for me. However, after graduating from high school I went through a phase of disinterest in food that later developed into unhealthy eating habits. At the expense of my health and my skin, I deprived myself of all the protective and skin-healing nutrients.
Eating a variety of nutrient dense foods has been associated with better skin-aging appearance, while food deficiencies have often been linked to skin disorders, as in the case of Vitamin B12 and skin lesions, Vitamin D and Eczema, Zinc and rashes, etc. Eating foods that are rich in Vitamin C is particularly important, as Vitamin C can preserve the skin's integrity.
I highly doubt that I would still look 20 years old if I had been more responsible with my skin, but clearly, I could have done a better job at protecting it. Yet, I can't be too negative about it. In the process of figuring out what was wrong with my skin I quit some very unhealthy habits. I also still get plenty of "You look younger" compliments when I visit Italy, but for some reasons, they don't believe me when I say that it's because I quit smoking and I use sunscreen. I guess they'll figure it out the hard way, too.