The Dermatologist-Approved Plan for Building Stronger Skin

Photo: Getty/Rahima Gambo
Every single aspect of our bodies have been through it this year, from our nerves to our teeth to our hair. But one part that is really starting to show wear and tear is our skin: The epidermis is just done, y’all. Masks, blue light exposure, lack of sleep, stress, and dramatic changes in our everyday routines mean that our complexions are in need of some serious TLC.

By building back lost strength and resilience, we can help our complexions cope with these uncertain times. First, let's look at how skin becomes fragile, and then we'll follow with the dermatologist-recommended remedies to build stronger skin.

How skin becomes fragile

“When we talk about fragility to skin, we talk about thinning of the skin,” explains Joseph Terracina, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at The Skin Institute, Greenville, MS, who explains that aging, sun exposure, and our lifestyle choices damage the integrity of the skin. “When we're very young, our collagen is very orderly and structured with great elastic fibers, but as we age and gain sun exposure, it breaks down the collagen and elastic fibers in our skin. This creates water spaces in the skin, which gives us fragility.” As skin gets more fragile, it becomes more at risk for certain skin conditions. “Besides thinning skin and more brown spots, the blood vessels in the dermis also become more fragile with bruising and possibly bleeding under the skin,” says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology.

There are a few key factors that cause the skin to thin and become more fragile, chief among them sun exposure. “With damaging UV radiation, increased heat and infrared radiation, and longer time spent outdoors, the skin can receive significant sun damage,” says Dr. Levin. Since many COVID 19-era social gatherings are being hosted in the fresh air, both dermatologists advise year-round sunscreen for their patients to maintain skin strength and overall health. (If you're not sure which SPF to reach for, Dr. Levin loves ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica Ultralight Emulsion SPF 50+, $50.) “We always want to try to help the collagen that’s there, but we want to maintain it as well,” explains Dr. Terracina, who is passionate about sunscreen for all patients, particularly those with skin of color, who often experience more hyperpigmentory issues because of sun exposure. “I almost recommend sunscreens more because of pigment issues,” he explains. “As sunlight darkens skin, it’s going to darken their irregular pigment areas as well.”

Aside from the sun, smoking and stress can both impact skin's strength. Overwhelming numbers of studies suggest that "not only does smoking hasten the aging process, but nicotine increases the risk of skin cancer and other types of internal cancers,” warns Dr. Terracina. Likewise, with stress maxing out because of COVID-19, our skin is bearing the brunt. “Stress has a negative effect on our bodies and specifically our skin, because the skin is the window to what's going on in the body.”

To combat this via lifestyle changes, exercise helps increase blood flow to the skin, and it also helps eradicate stress and put you to sleep, which Dr. Terracina says can have skin-strengthening benefits. “I think the most recent studies suggest that even in older patients, getting seven and a half hours of sleep a night is probably the best thing you can do.”

How to build stronger skin

One of the critical aspects of consistent skin strength building is finding the right regimen. “You want the basics: moisturizer, sunscreen, retinols or similar products, [and] glycolic acid,” says Dr. Terracina. In particular, by upping your use of antioxidants, you can prevent issues down the line. “Vitamin C derivatives help prevent free radical oxidative structures from causing inflammation in the skin,” explains Dr. Terracina. “[It’s] a free radical scavenger.” Try Drunk Elephant Time to Wake Up Vitamin C + Hydration Serum Duo ($23).

Moisture is also critical for skin integrity. Look for ingredients like glycerin, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid to help bind moisture to the skin, repair the essential building blocks of collagen, and increase moisture volume and plumpness in the skin, respectively, found in Cetaphil Deep Hydration Healthy Glow Daily Cream ($22). For winter, Dr. Levin also suggests investing in a humidifier like the Canopy Humidifier ($150) and placing it next to your bed or work station for consistent hydration.

Last but not least, experts suggest turning to peptides. Since collagen is too large of a molecule to enter the body through the skin, by applying peptides, you can cue your body's internal systems to flip on the collagen production pumps. “There's some data to suggest it's helpful for the aging process and the elasticity process in the skin, but it's not effective unless you combine it with other factors which enhance absorption of the peptides, like vitamin C, glycolic acid, and retinols,” says Dr. Terracina, who recommends SkinCeuticals Metacell Renewal B3 ($112).

As with most strength-training programs, it’s important to remember to start off slow. “Don't rush into new skin care,” advises Dr. Levin. “The skin likes consistency, so when weather or skin-care routines drastically change, it can take a toll on the skin, as it adjusts.” She advises easing into a new skin-care regimen gently with the basics first (cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen,) then add serums and other actives (like peptides, vitamin C, and retinol) one at a time. As with anything, over time you’ll see the results you want: skin that’s as strong, vibrant, and robust as you are.

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