Beyond Youthful Skin: Your Face Cream Might Protect Against Age-Related Diseases

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“Anti-aging:” In the beauty world, it’s a term used on face creams that claim to reduce wrinkles and increase brightness. But new research shows that the right skin-care routine may slash your risk of chronic disease as you age, too.

As it turns out, skin — the largest organ in the body — may be at the root of the low-level inflammation that occurs throughout the body as we get older, according to a small new study, out of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and the San Francisco Veterans Administration Health Care System. The good news? Using a moisturizing cream all over your body could lower that inflammation and lower your risk of certain diseases.

Aging-related inflammation (“inflamm-aging”) has been linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. While scientists formerly believed the liver or the immune system was to blame for this inflamm-aging, the UCSF study points toward the skin instead.

“The inflammation must come from an organ big enough that very minor inflammation can affect the whole body. Skin is a good candidate for this because of its size,” stated study senior author Mao-Qiang Man, M.D., a research scientist in the UCSF Department of Dermatology, in a press release. “Once we get old, we have dermatological symptoms like itchiness, dryness, and changes in acidity. It could be that the skin has very minor inflammation, and because it’s such a large organ, it elevates circulating cytokine levels.” That means that even little issues can translate to inflammation throughout the body, therefore increasing your risk of certain diseases.

The team that worked on the study, published in the Journal of The European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, used a skin cream, which was developed based on the researchers’ previous work, to reverse age-related skin damage. A group of 33 adults between ages 58 and 95 used the cream, which contained three types of lipids that promote skin health and moisture — cholesterol, free fatty acids, and ceramides — all over their bodies twice a day for a month. When the month was over, the UCSF scientists measured the participants’ blood levels for three cytokines (a type of protein) that have been linked to age-related inflammatory diseases.

According to the results, adults who used the skin cream had lower levels of the three cytokines after the month was over, and their levels were also lower than those of adults who had not used the skin cream. In fact, the older adults who used the cream ended up with cytokine levels as low as the levels of people in their 30s.

In addition to reducing inflammation, the skin cream lowered pH, improved skin hydration, and repaired the permeability barrier. And that barrier is key — when broken, it can cause inflammatory signals to be released into the blood.

“[In a larger study], we're going to see whether using the cream to keep epidermal function normal as people age will prevent the development of those downstream diseases,” stated co-author Peter Elias, M.D., a UCSF professor of dermatology, in the press release. “If we do, the implication would be that after the age of 50, you would want to be applying an effective topical barrier repair preparation daily for the rest of your life.”

Until then, skin moisturizers do a face and body good for other reasons too (a.k.a., softness, smoothness). These products contain the three key lipids from the study (but note that they may not be at the exact ratio specified in the study): SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2($128, DermStore), Ceramedx Ultra Moisturizing Cream ($17.99, ceramedx.com), and CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($10.49, Amazon).

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, these other tips can help you protect your skin and prevent dryness:

  • Apply a moisturizer right after your bath or shower; it’ll soak in best on damp skin.
  • If you have parched skin, go for ointments and creams over lotions for deeper moisturization.
  • And don’t forget sunscreen: Research shows that using one with an SPF of 30 or more can protect your skin better than a lower SPF, even if you don’t apply it properly.

See more helpful articles:

Study Finds Surprising New Anti-Aging Trick

10 Tips for a Great Nighttime Skin Routine

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