Is She Actually Born With It? Here’s How Genetics Influence Your Skin.

Ever wonder how your genetics affect the way your skin ages...and whether you can do anything about it? Here's the science.

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“Maybe she’s born with it.”

That’s the tagline of a popular cosmetic line, which we won’t mention here—okay, fine, it’s Maybelline—and a reference to the timeless appeal of beautiful, natural skin. Dig a little deeper, though, and there’s an assumption within the tagline: Our genes control our skin’s appearance.

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That’s partly true, but of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. We decided to look into the science of skin genetics—with special attention to products that claim to leverage the power of genetics to slow down the aging process.

When people discuss “aging” and “skin,” they’re really talking about something else.

Admit it: When you think about aging and skin, you think about wrinkles. They’re arguably aging’s most visible sign, and for the most part, wrinkling is inevitable. However, we wondered what actually causes wrinkles to form and whether there’s a way to slow down or reverse the process.

As we age, we produce less collagen, the structural protein that gives our skin its strength. We produce about 1 percent less collagen every year, so over time, the skin becomes more susceptible to wrinkling and sagging. That’s a simplified version of the aging process—we also become worse at sweating (which sounds way more awesome than it actually is), and we produce less elastin, another protein that acts as a connective tissue.

While everyone ages, the process is certainly more pronounced for some people. That’s partially due to genetic differences.

“One of the bigger factors is how your parents have aged, how your grandparents aged,” says Suzanne Friedler, MD, a board-certified fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. “If you look at that, you’ll probably get a good idea of how you’ll age.”

Michele and Mikaela Lilly, winners of the Herald-Whig’s Mother & Daughter Look-Alike contest. (Phil Carlson/Herald-Whig)

However, external factors play an enormous role, and it’s difficult to completely isolate the genetic factors from those external factors. UV radiation is an especially significant problem; while our bodies have some built-in protection from sunlight, sunlight can cause extraordinary damage to the skin in a fairly short amount of time. That’s why sunscreen and sun avoidance are crucial to slowing the skin’s aging process. Unfortunately, people typically apply sunscreen at under 25 percent of the recommended dose.

If you’ve got lighter eyes and hair, you’re probably more susceptible to getting wrinkles.

That brings us to one of the key ways that genetics affect skin aging.

“In general, darker-skinned individuals skin will age more gracefully as there is more melanin in the skin which protects the skin from sun exposure,” says Jerome Potozkin, MD, a California dermatologist.

This is the reasoning behind the saying that’s now the title for Viola Davis’ possibly-upcoming comedy, Black Don’t Crack. Research backs that up. A 2016 paper found that “individuals with darker skin are overall thought to have firmer and smoother skin than individuals with lighter skin of the same age.”

The authors also noted that cultural ideas of beauty differ quite a bit, and that all types of skin age, albeit in different ways. Nevertheless, darker skin tends to show fewer wrinkles due to the melanin difference.

That brings us back to one of those external factors, because…

UV light—the light from the sun—ages the skin.

“UV light is probably one of the biggest factors in skin aging,” says Friedler. “To put it simply, the more sun exposure you’ve had, the worse your skin ages. Darker skin tones have more natural protection against UV, so they tend to age a lot better.”

With that said, people with darker skin can still get skin cancer, so sunscreen is important for everyone. Don’t assume that your skin’s natural defenses are enough to keep you safe.

“The two most common forms of ultraviolet exposure are exposure to sunlight and tanning beds,” Potozkin says. “To decrease the acceleration of skin aging, it is prudent to protect the skin from the sun through the use of sunscreen and sun-protective clothing.”

“There’s no such thing as a healthy tan.”

—Suzanne Friedler, MD

Granted, you’ll want to get some sunshine, since vitamin D is a crucial nutrient, and your body creates vitamin D when prompted by sunlight. Still, high levels of vitamin D have also been associated with premature skin aging in mice, so moderation is key.

Never assume that your skin is healthy simply because you didn’t get a sunburn.

Friedler says that’s a common mistake.

“There’s no such thing as a healthy tan,” she says. “A tan is a sign of skin damage, period.”

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Tanning occurs when your body is exposed to relatively high levels of UV radiation, typically from sunlight or a tanning bed. Your body responds to the threat by increasing melatonin production. That sounds like a healthy response, but the FDA notes that suntanning is associated with higher levels of skin cancer. Even if you don’t tan or burn, you shouldn’t step into the sunlight without adequate protection.

“All kinds of UV affect skin aging,” Friedler explains. “Not only UV-B, which we associate with sunburns and suntans, but UV-A, which is more of an invisible radiation—it also affects your skin aging.”

“For example, the windows on a car block out UV-B. In Australia, there have been studies that look at people and compares the driver’s side—which is hit with a lot of UV-A rays—versus the passenger’s seat, which is on the shadier side of the car. And in the studies, the side that was exposed to UV-A had a lot of solar elastosis, which means a breakdown of the collagen, breakdown of the elastin, and a lot of fine wrinkling. That’s just from those UV-A rays.”

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Moral of the story: Wear your sunscreen, even if you don’t think it’s necessary.

[Editorial note: We think that Friedler is referring to this study, performed by a team led by Matthias Moehrle, MD.]

If you have thicker skin, you might also age more gracefully.

As Friedler explains, thicker skin contains more collagen, that fun structural protein we’d referenced earlier.

“The more collagen you have, the better your skin will look [as it ages],” she says. “That’s if you naturally have more fullness or thickness to the skin. But I don’t know if that’s a main factor in skin aging—it’s just one of the factors that has a genetic basis.”

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Once again, darker-skinned people tend to benefit in this department, specifically because they have smaller collagen-fiber bundles than lighter-skinned people.

“People with darker skin naturally have a little bit more collagen and a different kind of collagen, and your skin might age a little better along the way,”  Friedler says.

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Still, our experts agreed that, over time, external factors tend to play a much bigger role than genetic factors. That’s not a bad deal—external factors are controllable, but genetic factors obviously aren’t.

What about skincare products that claim to use genetics in order to provide better results?

We’re talking about products that claim to use a “genetic profile” to create an optimized skincare routine for every consumer. Basically, these products claim to be the 23andme of dermatology. Orig3n, a Boston-based company, offers a “skin health and appearance” test for ~$38, along with a more comprehensive “beauty DNA test” for ~$47.

“It sounds a little hokey to me,” Friedler says. “I don’t know too much about it. But I think the things that determine a skincare routine have more to do with oils.”

Friedler notes that oilier skin tends to have fewer wrinkles. There’s a big caveat to keep in mind: Some wrinkles seem to pop up regardless of your oil levels or skin type, according to recent research in Clinical Anatomy. Crow’s feet (the little lines around your eyes) are a notable example.

Still, oilier skin tends to prevent forehead wrinkles, per the Clinical Anatomy research, and forehead wrinkles are obviously pretty notable. If you’re not dealing with issues like acne, oily skin might actually be a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s also unpredictable.

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“If you’re younger, your skin may produce more oils,” Friedler says. “But there are patients and people who age and their skin stays so oily, which is unusual. Typically, skin gets drier as you age, but there are people who actually get oilier skin as they get older. And oil levels also vary depending on the time of year.”

If you use a skincare routine optimized to your “genetic profile,” you’re probably going to be disappointed, simply because genetics are far too complicated for a single test to reveal anything useful.

“I don’t think a genetic test is really going to give you the answer to that. It can’t tell you how oily your skin will be at a certain point in your life,” Friedler says. “It’s not going to tell you what to expect in that department.”

To put it another way, products that claim to offer some sort of advantage thanks to genetic science might not be worth the money, simply because genetics are, well, complex.

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“While everything ultimately has a ‘genetic’ origin, it’s a very different line,” says Ranella Hirsch, MD, a Boston dermatologist. “[The line is] straight, say, for eye color or a condition like xeroderma pigmentosum (a genetic skin condition). How you wrinkle has a much more indirect connection [to genetics].”

Regardless of your skin type, effective dermatological maintenance makes a difference in aging.

We consulted with a few dermatologists for this story, and they all gave us the same advice: Wear sunscreen. If you skipped over that section of this article, that’s the big takeaway. UV radiation can age the skin, so if you’re spending a decent amount of time in the sunlight, make sure that you’re adequately protected.

Another good tip for staying young: Put your phone away at the end of the night. Melatonin production seems to have a beneficial effect on the skin aging process, per a 2012 paper published in the journal Dermatoendocrinology. And your body naturally produces melatonin, a hormone, at night.

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The hormone plays a critical role in healthy sleep, and various factors can influence its production. If you regularly look at your phone at night, your body will produce less melatonin, since your body interprets the electronic light as sunlight.

While genetics play a big role in skin aging, researchers are just starting to understand that effect. Ultimately, if you want to preserve your youthful looks, your best bet is to think about the factors that you can control—for instance, skin moisturization, sleep health, and sun exposure—and leave those miracle, “genetically optimized” products behind.

We’re all the subjects of our genetics, but the good news is that we can control some of the factors that drive aging. Pass the sunscreen.

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