Today’s focus on skin and hair is far from an exercise in vanity. Not only can problems with hair be an early indicator of conditions such as an underactive thyroid, skin that is not properly looked after can age faster and older skin is more prone to bruising and dryness, and slower to heal.
Wear sun cream — even if it’s raining
‘Using SPF protection all year round is the most effective anti-ageing technique there is,’ says Dr Zena Willsmore, a dermatology specialist registrar at King’s College London.
‘If you can see outside without a torch, then ultraviolet (UV) light is there and you need to be wearing skin protection.’
This is essential whatever your skin colour, adds Dr Mary Sommerlad, a consultant dermatologist at Homerton University Hospital in London and privately on Harley Street. The good news is that if you are scrupulous about it, ‘age spots’, which are actually sun damage, don’t have to be an inevitable part of getting older, she says.
You need sunscreen even when driving, says Dr Nick Lowe, a consultant dermatologist at the Cranley Clinic, London.
‘Using SPF protection all year round is the most effective anti-ageing technique there is,’ says Dr Zena Willsmore, a dermatology specialist registrar at King’s College London
‘Most people assume they’re protected from UV rays when they’re driving with the windows closed. In fact, harmful UV rays, which damage collagen [a protein that strengthens skin] in the deepest layers as well as blood vessels, go through car windows and cause premature wrinkles and sun spots, and raise the risk of skin cancer.’
He advises looking for sunscreens with the highest protection against UVA rays, which are the ones that cause wrinkles. In winter you can still get strong UVA rays through car windows in the middle of the day, although the sun is too low in the sky for UVB rays to penetrate the atmosphere and these are the ones closely linked to skin cancer.
Dr Sommerlad adds: ‘Niacinamide, a skincare ingredient with multiple benefits, is also a great addition to sunscreens if you are tackling hyperpigmentation.’
Eat brightly coloured foods
There is some evidence that certain foods are good for your skin, whereas others can hinder, according to Dr Thivi Maruthappu, a consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic in London.
‘High-sugar diets contribute to premature ageing as sugar causes collagen to undergo glycation, a process which over time makes it stiff rather than springy.
‘As collagen is the most abundant protein in the skin, it is essential to maintaining a plump, radiant complexion, so damage by sugar contributes to fine lines and wrinkles.
‘By contrast, antioxidant-rich foods such as green tea and dark-coloured fruits and vegetables — such as kale, broccoli and berries — contain anthocyanins, compounds with potent antioxidant effects and that protect collagen from degradation.
There is some evidence that certain foods are good for your skin, whereas others can hinder, according to Dr Thivi Maruthappu, a consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic in London
‘In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology confirmed that eating an antioxidant-rich diet significantly protected skin from sun-induced ageing such as wrinkles.’
Dr Maruthappu adds: ‘Brightly coloured anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, kidney beans, tomatoes and red onions can also help protect against heart disease and certain cancers, so I try to include some at every meal, such as berries at breakfast, colourful vegetables with other meals and green tea over coffee.’
Prioritise your ‘beauty’ sleep
‘Chronic poor sleep quality is associated with accelerated skin-ageing [seen as wrinkles and pigmentation spots], diminished skin barrier function [so skin is more prone to inflammation] and lower satisfaction with appearance,’ says Dr Justine Kluk, a dermatologist in Harley Street, London.
Getting enough sleep — which works in tandem with managing stress — is key, adds Dr Sonia Khorana, an NHS GP based in the West Midlands.
‘Chronic stress and the associated raised levels of a hormone called cortisol can cause hair loss and lead to flare-ups of acne, eczema and psoriasis. But getting decent sleep can help regulate these cortisol levels and help with your skin.
‘Conversely the disruption of our circadian rhythm [or body clock] results in increased oxidative stress — where cells are damaged by compounds called free radicals — and accelerated ageing.
‘This in turn disrupts the levels of important hormones such as melatonin, the sleep hormone, which also counteracts damage to the skin from UV and pollution, and also growth hormone, which is necessary for the maintenance of collagen and cell regeneration.’
Getting enough sleep — which works in tandem with managing stress — is key, adds Dr Sonia Khorana, an NHS GP based in the West Midlands [File photo]
Make your bedroom steamy
With the heating cranked up and cold air, most people notice their skin feeling dryer in winter, but older skins are even more susceptible to this seasonal change.
‘As your skin gets older it tends to become drier and produce less natural oil, which can lead to tiny cracks and can make it more susceptible to infection and tearing,’ says London-based dermatology registrar Dr Cristina Psomadakis.
‘You need to protect the skin barrier and make up for some of the hydration that’s lost by moisturising your skin daily.
‘I’d also consider investing in a humidifier. These can increase skin hydration and help to reduce transepidermal water loss, the rate at which moisture is lost from the skin.
‘Plug it in at night before bed for an extra boost of hydration.’
She warns that humidifiers need to be kept clean as dirty reservoirs and filters can breed bacteria, which can cause problems for people with asthma and allergies.
With the heating cranked up and cold air, most people notice their skin feeling dryer in winter, but older skins are even more susceptible to this seasonal change
KEEP A RECORD OF YOUR MOLES
One of the biggest risk factors for skin cancer is sun exposure, and the older you are, the more cumulative exposure you will have had to the sun.
What’s important is knowing what’s normal for you. Part of that means keeping an eye on moles and noting changes in shape, size or colour. Dr Psomadakis recommends taking photographs of moles every three months and ensuring there’s a point of reference, such as a tape measure or a coin.
But she notes that not all skin cancers are moles: ‘Skin cancer can come in many forms, including flesh-coloured lumps, non-healing wounds, little pieces of crust that keep coming back, or red patches.
‘It can be under your nails, between your toes, on your eyelid, so don’t ignore any non-healing wound or strange patch of skin that keeps reappearing — seek medical advice.’
Check your iron levels
While, as we age, a certain amount of hair loss might be expected, says Dr Susan Mayou, a dermatologist in London, checking iron levels can help keep your hair looking better for longer. ‘Keeping iron levels stable is an important factor for good hair growth,’ she adds.
The key is checking your ferritin levels. ‘Ferritin is a blood protein that contains iron and is the major way in which the body stores iron, so ferritin levels reflect the level of iron in the body. Ferritin releases iron when needed, for example to make red blood cells and to optimise hair growth.
‘If you notice your hair is breaking easily, or growing poorly, ferritin levels — with a blood test — are worth checking [along with zinc levels and thyroid function] with your GP to rule out low levels which can easily be treated.
‘If the ferritin level turns out to be in the normal range, it might still be worth taking iron supplements to put the level above the upper limit of normal range to improve hair growth.’
Eating iron-rich foods, such as red meat and spinach, can help, but it’s harder to gauge how much iron you’re getting from them.
However, it’s worth being aware that taking more than 20 mg a day can cause gastrointestinal problems and, in excess, iron supplementation can lead to poisoning. The NHS advice is to take no more than 17 mg a day unless advised to by a medical professional.
Caffeinate your shampoo
So many products promise miracle cures for hair loss, but certain over-the-counter products — such as caffeine shampoos — really could be of value, says Dr Zainab Laftah, consultant dermatologist at HCA at The Shard in London.
‘The potential effects of caffeine shampoos at reducing hair loss have been heavily debated,’ she says. ‘It is suggested that caffeine acts by increasing both the blood circulation in the scalp and the hair growth-promoting protein insulin-like growth factor 1.’
More recent clinical trials have demonstrated greater effects with caffeine-based, leave-on shampoos highlighting its ‘potential role as an adjuvant treatment’ alongside medications such as minoxidil or finasteride, for male- and female-pattern baldness, she says.
‘A recent study in the British Journal of Dermatology and part-funded by a haircare company, also demonstrated caffeine may help counteract stress-induced hair damage and loss through the same mechanism. However, these clinical trials were small and further research is needed.’
So many products promise miracle cures for hair loss, but certain over-the-counter products — such as caffeine shampoos — really could be of value, says Dr Zainab Laftah, consultant dermatologist at HCA at The Shard in London [File photo]
The one pill that experts agree on
While many of the experts we spoke to were sceptical about the numerous supplements purporting to help hair and skin, there was almost unanimous approval for one: vitamin D.
‘Biotin is the most commercially popular vitamin for hair loss,’ says Dr Laftah. Biotin is a B vitamin that stimulates keratin production in hair and can increase the rate of follicle growth.
‘However, true biotin deficiency is rare and supplementation in healthy individuals has not been shown to reduce hair loss,’ she says. ‘On the other hand, vitamin D is not only an essential vitamin for bone health, it is also important for hair growth.’
Studies have shown vitamin D deficiency is linked to a number of causes of hair loss, including telogen effluvium (hair shedding), alopecia areata (where hair is lost in a patchy way), and female-pattern hair loss (where the parting gets wider and you can see hair at the temples receding).
‘Biotin is the most commercially popular vitamin for hair loss,’ says Dr Laftah. Biotin is a B vitamin that stimulates keratin production in hair and can increase the rate of follicle growth. Biotin is depicted above
‘The majority of us are vitamin D deficient during the winter months, so a daily supplement between the months of October and March is recommended,’ says Dr Laftah.
Dr Khorana says that vitamin D helps skin as well as hair.
‘Studies have shown that vitamin D plays a role in the normal maturation of the skin barrier, the skin’s immune system and wound healing, as well as the hair growth cycle,’ she says.
Two products to consider using
With so many skincare brands vying for your attention, it’s hard to know which serums and moisturisers are actually worth using. In addition to daily sun protection, the experts that we spoke to recommended two other gold-standard anti-ageing products for skin.
The first is an antioxidant serum, usually applied in the morning. ‘Antioxidants help our natural defences against free radical damage [the unstable molecules generated by UV light and pollution that can accelerate the ageing process],’ says Dr Psomadakis.
‘Among other things, they are there to fight against the breakdown of collagen, the protein that gives skin its youthful bounce.
‘A well-researched antioxidant is vitamin C, but there are plenty of other topical antioxidants to choose from.’
If you’re using an antioxidant in the morning, at night you want to be using a retinoid, a form of vitamin A.
‘Introducing a retinoid to your evening skincare routine will help maintain smoother, firmer-feeling skin regardless of your age or gender,’ says Dr Sommerlad.
‘Retinoids also increase the turnover of skin cells so will give skin a fresher, more glowing appearance and can help with excess pigmentation as they encourage the shedding of abnormally pigmented cells so they can be replaced with normally pigmented cells.
‘They can be tricky to get used to [as they can cause irritation] so I always recommend using the lowest concentration first [such as 0.2 per cent or 0.3 per cent retinol] a few evenings per week then gradually building up to nightly.
‘Once you can tolerate a nightly application [without getting redness, soreness or peeling], you can try increasing the concentration — but remember, if you are getting the results you want on lower concentrations, you don’t need to increase.’
In the UK, the highest percentage of retinol that can be sold over the counter is 1 per cent.