The Future of Skin Care Hinges on Keeping Time With Your Complexion’s Natural Rhythm

It’s a little before midnight as I write, and that’s breaking this story’s rules. As the science surrounding circadian rhythms and the skin continue to solidify, my teenage-night-owl trail of wee-hours inspiration could actively be throwing off my skin from functioning in its optimal state. Skin circadian rhythm is a concept that brands and derms are studying as custom skin care’s next breakthrough hinges on teeny, tiny “metabolites," which play into the skin's ability to stay in sync with the rest of our systems.

“The beauty of studying metabolomics is that it takes into account your genetics, your microbiome and your environment to give an overall image of what’s happening specifically to your skin at any time,” explains Nadine Pernodet, PhD, Vice President of Skin Biology and BioActives at Estée Lauder. When launching Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Complex II ($72) two decades ago, the brand targeted initial findings that “skin metabolites oscillated, following a circadian rhythm, and those oscillations grow weak and erratic with age, impeding repair." Today, with even more evidence that a steady rhythm is the mark of healthy cells, it’s worth figuring out how to keep the beat for the betterment of skin.

Today, with even more evidence that a steady rhythm is the mark of healthy cells, it’s worth figuring out how to keep the beat for the betterment of skin.

“The skin is the body's largest organ—and also the easiest organ to access—so it can provide a lot of direct information,” explains New York City-based dermatologist Jessica Weiser, MD FAAD. “One means of assessing the skin's natural rhythms is through the use of metabolites. All of the body's organs produce small compounds during their metabolic processes—these metabolites account for genetic differences, environmental variations, behavioral changes, age, UV exposure, and more,” she says. An assistant clinical professor of Dermatology at Columbia University and founder of Weiser Skin MD, she is keenly aware that this metabolic “fingerprint” is a promising therapeutic tool.

“These metabolites can be retrieved from the skin surface to demonstrate what is happening on a cellular level, and then used to help better target skin-care treatment in an effort to affect the skin's natural activities,” she explains. “Metabolite samples, when taken repeatedly at various times of the day, show cycles of protection and repair, which help guide how to maximize the repair processes in damaged skin.” According to Dr. Weiser, we aren’t yet taking full advantage of this information. In the future, the new normal may be tailoring product routines to personal rhythms. Until then, here’s how to maximize what we know and hack your general skin beat.

Quality sleep is crucial to skin functioning

Since optimal repair processes require optimal rest, there’s a direct tie between abbreviated sleep schedules and accelerated skin aging. “The most familiar circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle,” Dr. Weiser explains. Since sleep is partially regulated by melatonin levels which typically peak at night, exposure to light sources—like this screen—after a certain point causes an abrupt decrease in melatonin levels.

Why does melatonin matter? “Interestingly, melatonin has many other roles including hair growth, reduction of UV damage in skin cells, wound healing, and more,” says Dr. Weiser. “When we alter the body's natural melatonin production, we equally diminish its ability to repair damage at night.” Hum Nutrition Mighty Night ($40) blends sleep-supporting herbs, antioxidants, and hydrating ceramides into an evening supplement designed to enhance overnight cell renewal, while Milk Makeup’s Melatonin Overnight Serum ($36) blends topical melatonin with Persian Silk Tree extract and hyaluronic acid for a push-pop-sized stick of solid serum.

According to Dr. Weiser, catching adequate ZZZs should be a natural prescription from forward-thinking derms. “As a result of lack of sleep, the quality of someone’s skin can deteriorate cosmetically and medically,” reinforces dermatologist Robert Anolik, MD, of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. “From a cosmetic perspective, the stressors can weaken the quality of collagen fibers and skin tones, leaving the skin with fine lines and enlarged pores.”

The time of day you apply products matters

Generally, daylight is the time to protect, darkness is the time to regenerate. The founders of The Route, which designed a 24-Hour Skin Rhythm approach to their Everything Day ($90) and Everything Night ($90) multitasking moisturizers say that skin is a “nocturnal animal.” When the sun is out, it’s closed off to intruders. At night, it works to replace water loss and shifts into repair mode.

The brand's product duo uses the body’s circadian clock to target the delivery of ingredients at optimal times for skin cell’s unique shifts. And metabolites play a role here as well. “It’s important that products have the right concentration of daytime metabolites to help with neutralizing the negative environmental effects and nighttime metabolites to support skin renewal,” says Anne Chapas, MD, a dermatological advisor to Noble Panacea who notes that these are universal concepts nonspecific to age or gender.

She touts the brand’s Absolute Intense Renewal Serum ($420) for its Organic Molecular Vessels delivery system. “As OMVs travel through the skin once they are applied, each vessel is programmed to deliver an ingredient for absorption at the optimal moment with control over a course of the day or through the night.” And in addition to ingredients like the activation enzyme teprenone, which aids in the stabilization of telomeres at the end of chromosomes to delay cellular degeneration (more on DNA to come), there’s a constant focus to keep skin protected and better able to meet the outside world in defense mode.

DNA repair is paramount

Ultimately, the goal is to keep up cells’ ability to repair themselves and their DNA.“One specific skin-care company looking to stimulate the DNA repair and protection process is Defenage,” says Dr. Weiser, who notes that a combination of alpha and beta defensins, natural immune peptides found in products like Defenage 24/7 Barrier Balance Cream ($127),  have been shown to activate a stem cell found in the hair follicle. “This specific stem cell is considered the source of most new epidermal cells during acute wound healing, and the defensin-mediated stimulation helps to promote a wound healing-like response.” Results range from increased epidermal thickness to reduced appearance of pores and even pigmentation.

In the hyper-prestige market, La Prairie just introduced Platinum Rare Cellular Night Elixir at a price point of $1,275. “The four functions essential to the skin’s complete regeneration process are addressed: nutrition, respiration, detoxification and immunity,” the brand shares of the first-of-its-kind recipe. The elixir boasts the highest concentration of La Prairie’s Exclusive Cellular Complex, which provides nutrients like amino acids, nucleotides, and sugars required to synthesize biomolecules—like proteins and DNA—essential to cellular structure. And while the steep price point might make the serum out of reach for many, the science driving the innovation will no doubt inform how we approach skin care in the years to come.

Hydration really is the Fountain of Youth

As Dr. Chapas mentions, skin dehydration is a factor in accelerated cell dysfunction. Aside from drinking sufficient H2O, there are topical measures that can be taken. To help prevent transepidermal water loss, Pause Well-Aging Collagen Boosting Moisturizer ($72) maintains moisture balance for both morning and night while simultaneously encouraging cell turnover—and though it launched as a solution to increase activity in menopausal cells, its hormone-free formula is safe for all skin types.

“At night in particular, skin blood flow and temperature are higher, which causes permeability of the skin barrier and increases water loss and skin itch,” Dr. Weiser points out. “This explains, at least partially, why many eczema patients feel more itchy in the evening. It would make sense to encourage the use of topical moisturizers or anti-inflammatory products at night.” Tower 28 SOS Daily Rescue Facial Spray ($28) not only received the National Eczema Association’s Seal of Acceptance, it’s rich in hypochlorous acid that triggers an immune boost in skin and helps fight inflammation—another rhythm disruptor.

Inflammation causes problematic "crosstalk"

“Not only do we have a ‘global’ body clock, but almost all of our cells have their own clocks,” says Ben Van Handel, PhD, co-founder of Heraux and stem cell biologist at the University of Southern California. In an ideal world, these are keeping the same time. However, inflammation can influence “crosstalk” between these clocks, causing them to fall out of sync. (Think of a piece of spoiled fruit in a bowl encouraging other fruits to go bad sooner.)

“These interruptions are bad news, as they can cause the production of more pro-inflammatory molecules, which further speeds up the biological clock in our skin in a feed-forward loop,” explains Dr. Van Handelof of how this cyclical relationship between inflammation and aging led to the term “inflammaging.” Heraux Molecular Anti-Inflammaging Serum ($250) utilizes a proprietary biomimetic lipid “HX-1,” which boasts over a decade of research and 18 patents.

Designed to shield skin stem cells from the stress factors that drive inflammation, Dr. Van Handel explains that “this protective effect allows skin stem cells, and their clocks, to function better and maintain sync with the rest of the body.” Internally, a dose of Omega 3s—like the vegan version found Athena Club Daily Multi ($28)—have been shown to further support reduced inflammation levels in skin.

To back up the practice of using daytime UV protection and nighttime reparative topicals, Dr. Weiser points to a study that showed sun damage persisting for three hours after exposure actually occurred. “When we think of this in terms of treatment options, it is possible that early use of potent antioxidants could stop this prolonged damage and thereby reduce the increased risk of skin cancer development,” she shares.

Dr. Loretta Urban Antioxidant Sunscreen SPF 40 ($50) provides antioxidant protection from free radical damage caused by pollution and UV radiation while harnessing Indian ginseng extract as a way to protect skin from HEV light emitted from the sun and electronic devices. Adding a few drops of RéVive Defensif Environmental Antioxidant Booster ($175) to your moisturizer levels-up antioxidants and ingredients known to protect from smoke, blue light wavelengths and environmental aggressors that stress skin from morning to night.

And so, until the ability to test your personal cell rhythm exists, the complexities of skin's rhythm net out to a fairly simply takeaway that we can implement starting today and forevermore: Protect, feed, and rest your skin as needed, when needed, and it’ll do its best to keep working its natural biomimetic magic.

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...