Delaying "Glycation" May Be The Answer to Smoother, Younger-Looking Skin

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Caring for your skin requires a multi-pronged approach, regardless of condition or age. UV rays, free-radical damage, collagen levels, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation—it can feel like a never-ending list of things to address to protect your complexion (and everything beneath). However, this isn't your cue to panic since being proactive in your skincare regimen can prevent signs of premature aging, like laxity or fine lines.

Prevention is the name of the game, especially when delaying glycation, a common chemical reaction where sugar molecules, like glucose or fructose, attach to proteins like collagen and elastin in your skin. According to board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, this can lead to the development of advanced glycation end products (or AGEs), which are thought to contribute to and accelerate, the various signs of skin aging.

So what do experts say about glycation in your skin, the best ingredients to prevent it, and whether it's worth addressing in your current beauty regimen? Keep reading for everything you need to know.

Meet the Expert

  • Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
  • Shari Marchbein, MD PC, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Niche Dermatology. 
  • Kenneth Mark, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Colorado.
  • Sherry Ingraham, MD, MPH, TM, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Houston, Texas.

What Is Glycation?

The term "glycation" may sound relatively foreign, but the concept has been around for over 100 years. In 1912, French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard first observed that heating sugars and amino acids resulted in a yellowish-brown color, a measurable occurrence of AGEs, now known as the Maillard reaction. Just think of chicken skin when it develops that tasty crust as you cook it in a pan—delicious for your dinner but not so great for your complexion.

Since Maillard's initial analysis, there have been dozens of studies on the adverse effects of glycation on human health. In addition to skin damage, glycation is also believed to contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gut microbiome illnesses, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. "Basically, [glycation] is the gradual deterioration of bodily physiological function," explains Shari Marchbein, MD PC, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Niche Dermatology. 

How Does Glycation Influence the Aging Process?

Skin aging has exogenous and endogenous factors, meaning external components like UV rays, blue light, smoking, pollution, and internal elements (including glycation) that happen inside your cells. But, as Marchbein clarifies, "external contributions are also causing these sugar byproducts to bind to the collagen and elastin and cause [them] to break down." And because glycation is a stealthy foe, it can also impact the epidermal and dermal layers of skin.

As Garshick explains, "[Because] glycation can impact the skin at different levels, [it can lead to a reduction in lipid content and impaired skin barrier function [of the epidermis], making the skin appear dry. Advanced glycation end-products have also been shown to promote melanin production, which can contribute to dark spots and discoloration."

Once you move past the epidermis (or the top layer of skin) and move down to the dermis, advanced glycation end products can inhibit your skin's ability to synthesize collagen and elastin, thereby accelerating the aging process.

What Kicks Off the Glycation Process?

Recent studies have found that sugars that bind to proteins like collagen and elastin are the effect of a "sedentary lifestyle and high refined carbohydrate, hypercaloric diet," which "exceeds the oxidative capacity of mitochondria." The result? Advanced glycation end products will eventually "prevent collagen and elastin from functioning normally by making fibers rigid and prone to breakage, reducing their regenerative ability," says Sherry Ingraham, MD, MPH, TM, a board-certified dermatologist based in Houston, Texas.

So diet and exercise are huge factors as to whether or not you'll have a surplus of AGEs in your body as you get older, and ultimately how signs of aging, like sagging or fine lines, will appear on your skin. However, "external aggressors such as UV and pollution can accelerate AGE formation," says Ingraham.

And although most people point to age 25 as when you need to start thinking about your collagen levels decreasing, Ingraham reveals that glycated collagen can appear in people as young as 20-years-old. "It accumulates at a rate of about 3.7 percent per year, reaching a 30 to 50 percent increase by age 80," she says, adding that the external signs of glycation are usually seen by age 35 when the body becomes less resilient and produces less collagen.

Everyone is vulnerable to the accelerated aging effects of glycation, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Still, board-certified dermatologist Kenneth Mark, MD, explains that diabetics are often more vulnerable since it is difficult for their bodies to metabolize sugar. 

How Do You Slow Glycation?

As new studies emerge on the effects of glycation, there will inevitably be brands that want to target the process with topical products. However, your priority should be addressing lifestyle factors that can kick off protein damage. Says Mark, "Adopting an anti-AGE diet that's rich in antioxidants and low in sugar can help slow down glycation," and is essential for minimizing the effect on your skin. He also points to certain herbal supplements (a 2015 study showed that polyphenol and resveratrol could have anti-glycating activity) and regular exercise to control sugar levels, minimize oxidative stress, and prevent AGE formation.

As for whether a new cream or serum can influence the glycation process? "My feeling is yes," says Marchbein, "because as long as something can penetrate the skin enough to enhance collagen and elastin formation or decrease the free radical damage to the skin, it will help with glycation." She points to specific topical peptides (SkinBetter Science and Alastin formulate two of her favorite peptide-rich products) as well as retinolsunscreen, and antioxidants like niacinamide, licorice root, and vitamin C to help fight oxidative damage and encourage collagen and elastin production. 

Additional ingredients to look for include glycyrrhetinic acid, the main bioactive compound of licorice, which Ingraham explains has anti-inflammatory properties and can counteract dullness due to AGE accumulation. She also recommends proxylane, a patented molecule from SkinCeuticals and star of the brand's new AGE Interrupter Advanced cream, to help stimulate collagen production, correct skin laxity, and smooth deep wrinkles.

Final Takeaway

Fighting glycation isn't as simple as swiping on a new "anti-aging" cream and hoping for your collagen levels to bounce back. Maintaining a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, and using clinically-tested skincare products rich in anti-AGE ingredients will be the key to helping your skin age with as much functional collagen and elastin as possible. Remember, "endogenous AGE formation and accumulation in human tissues is a normal physiological process during aging," says Ingraham. 

While there's only so much you can do to slow the aging process throughout life, the best approach is to concentrate on prevention (via topical products and lifestyle choices) instead of treating existing damage. Afterall, they say the best offense is a good defense, especially regarding your skin. 

Article Sources
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