The basis of this post first appeared in a guest post I wrote for Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen, July 7, 2015.
Put the lotion down. Healthy skin does not start there. Nor does it begin with the right cleanser, exfoliator, masque, peel, toner, or micellar water. Rewind your steps until you’re out of the bathroom.
The foundation of your healthy skin begins with five life habits that may appear unconnected to skin care.
There’s a kind of desperation that surfaces in the skincare aisle, when you’re looking for that for that one product which will perfect tired, dreary, misanthropic skin. However, if you don’t have these skincare basics in place, you’ll be disappointed — no matter how much money or magic you spend in the beauty aisle. You may even find that with these five steps, pricey products will be unnecessary.
Nothing I’m about to say here is fancy or new. Sometimes in our pursuit of perfection, we forget to start with the basics. Furthermore, the benefits of each of these habits reach far beyond the skin. You will find increased overall healthfulness as well as mental agility and emotional balance.
1. Sleep. I used to think that sleep was for people who didn’t have anything better to do. However, no beauty treatment will make up for simple lack of sleep.
I’m talking the full recommended 7+ hours. And don’t give me the, “Well, I only need four.” If your skin is dragging, if it’s dull, if your eyes are puffy, or if acne, psoriasis, eczema plague you, then sleep is exactly where you need to start the healing process. It is, without question, the first line of defense. In my grandfather’s iconic words, “Enjoy only 2 cosmetics, enough sleep & Dr. Bronner’s ‘Magic Soap’.”
Why: Sleep increases blood flow and production of the human growth hormone, which in turn contributes to collagen production, relaxes facial muscles that foster lines, aids regeneration of skin cells, rebalances body moisture to reduce puffy eyes, and reduces overall inflammation that triggers things like psoriasis, acne, and eczema. A study in The British Medical Journal says it best: “Our findings show that sleep deprived people appear less healthy, less attractive, and more tired compared with when they are well rested.”
“But I can’t go to sleep!! I have too much to do,” you say. Your skin is saying the exact same thing. Your wakeful, conscious self is getting in the way. Go to sleep so that your body can get to work.
Tip: Schedule your sleep. Set yourself a “go to sleep” alarm for 8½ hours before your “need to get up” alarm.
2. Drink water. Although common sense and the wisdom of ages back this up, there’s a surprising lack of research to support drinking water for skin health. (There’s not as much money to be made in proving the healthfulness of un-patentable water, though many certainly try to market some special feature of their bottled water. Plain water is fine, fairly free, and doesn’t produce waste.)
The oft urged 8 cups a day is just a starting guideline. What you need depends on size, activity level, weather, and other circumstances. Thirst is the unquestioning indicator, but sometimes we all too easily ignore it.
Why: A symptom of dehydrated skin is loss of skin elasticity, which means dehydrated skin cells are dry, flaky, and prone to wrinkling. With adequate hydration, the skin can pull more water into cells to plump up and tighten them, making skin smoother and firmer, with fewer facial lines or visible cellulite.
Tip: Fill a pitcher or jug each morning with your daily amount of water. Set a goal to finish it by day’s end. Each time you want to consume anything—from a cup of coffee to a full meal—drink a glass of water first. You may even find you eat less because what you mistook for hunger was actually thirst.
3. Eat clean. Every bit of good food advice that benefits your body also benefits your skin. Increase your consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy oils. Reduce the amounts of refined foods, trans fats, and sugar in your diet.
Why: Antioxidants in fresh produce fight skin cancer and counter the causes of wrinkles and age spots. Good fats (such as those found in fish, seeds and nuts, avocados, coconut, and olives) nourish skin and keep it supple.
Tip: Plan your meals ahead of time with a menu calendar. Prep your whole day’s snacks at breakfast. The last-minute is the enemy of good nutrition. When we are hungry, we reach for what is easy. Planning ahead sets you up for success.
4. Reduce stress. Too often, we guilt ourselves into thinking that stress-reducing activities equal wasting time. Stop thinking that way. You’ll be better able to do whatever it is you do if you make time for relaxing. And you’re skin will relax as well. Exercise, listen to music, read, hang with friends, get a massage—do whatever you do to unwind.
Why: Stress causes muscle tension, which deepens the lines of the face. Stress also causes the body to build up cortisol and increases sebum production. Excessive sebum clogs pores. Cortisol brings on inflammation, which breaks down collagen, the substance that causes our skin to look smooth and firm. Stress also weakens the immune system, contributing to acne and psoriasis.
Tip: Schedule stress busters. Start with the free ones, like deep, slow breathing. Set an hourly, inconspicuous “ding” on your phone to prompt you to take 10 deep, slow breaths.
5. Exercise. There’s no substitute for it. Happily, there are so many ways to exercise that you can find your fit: run, walk, bike, swim, dance. From Ragnar to jazzercise, there’s something for everyone. For me, I’ve figured out that I hate to drive to exercise, so it has to be from somewhere I already am – home, work, kid activity. And I prefer to be outside. The gym and the treadmill were not built for me. I need to feel the elements against my skin – air, sun, water.
Why: Exercise increases blood flow, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the skin, and in general helping the body’s systems filter out toxins through the liver. Exercise also reduces stress and helps regulate hormones, which as mentioned earlier, controls sebum production. One study found that in people over 40, exercise thins the outer dead layers of skin, which thicken with age, and thickens the inner alive layers, which thin with age. Under scrutiny, the skin of avid exercisers even over the age of 65 had the composition of 20– and 30-year-olds.
Tip: Piggyback your exercise on to something you already do. This is a habit development trick that works in many places. For me, when I take my kids to school, I also take my dog and stop on the way home for a walk. (Downside – this doesn’t work when school is out, so I’m piggybacking swimming laps with my husband’s leaving for work in the morning.) An accountability partner, regular class, or group might help, depending on your temperament. Dr. Bronner’s has lunchtime Zumba, yoga, and cardio workouts throughout the week. Not only is it easy to join in – no driving, no fee – but there’s also a group expecting you.
And one to grow on…
I’m going to throw in an extra here. Something that will cost you neither money nor time and may earn you both. You can do this today. Right now.
Smile. A smile makes up for so many things. Even if all of the above five are lacking from your habits, research shows a smile makes you more beautiful. Mind you, I’m not talking about being mildly amused, or giving a little grin. I’m talking a full-blown smile! Take a moment to figure out what makes you smile. Personally, dog-shaming photos are my smiling jackpot.
Why: Regardless of what shape your skin is in, a smile draws the eye and distracts from blemishes. However, there are actual anatomical benefits to smiling as well. Smiling relaxes our skin and reduces unattractive tension lines—giving us an instant face-lift. Smiling makes us look younger. When I see the before-and-after pictures of the latest miracle product, what goes through my mind is, “Oh look. The person learned how to smile.” Smiling also reduces stress, and see the skin benefits of stress reduction above.
Tip: Return every smile you see. If you live in a realm of perpetually unsmiling people, be a trendsetter and return every frown you see with a smile. Sure, some people will think you’re a crazy, smiling weirdo, but that idea sort of thing makes me smile all the more. Most of the time the maxim holds true: smile and the world smiles with you.
All of these tips snowball on each other. Exercising reduces stress. Lowering stress contributes to better sleeping. Sleeping better lays the basis for better eating. And on and on it goes.
It takes six weeks for new skin to reach the surface, so give these tips some time to take effect. You’ll just have to get over the fact that they’re practically free. This is one area where you get far beyond what you pay for. That’s something to smile about!