Anti-Aging Is A Construct

It's not about aging and it never was.

I hate the term “anti-aging.” I hate all the put-a-positive-spin-on-it terms like “pro-aging” and “aging gracefully” and “preserv-aging” and “preventative aging” and “non-aging.” They all mean the same thing. They’re all lies.

In beauty, “aging” isn’t actually about aging.

As I wrote in this piece, the things we consider signs of premature aging — fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, loss of collagen, sagging, dullness — are more often signs of environmental exposure. Studies even suggest that up to 85% of “aging” is the result of exposure and not biological aging.

I’m convinced the only honest and not shame-y way to address “anti-aging,” then, is to rebrand it as the technically correct “anti-exposure.”

Dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo is a great resource for this. She was among the first to study the sun’s effects on the skin at Harvard and now has her own namesake skincare brand (tagline: “Skin Unexposed”). Based on her research, there are four main types of exposure: pollution, light, climate, and irritants; irritants being “ingredients meant to improve the skin’s condition” that “can lead instead to redness, flaking, rough texture, and sensitivity.” She notes tretinoin, SLS, SLES, fragrance, hydroquinone, kojic acid, and propylene glycol, among others, as ingredients that can “worsen” signs of aging. Go check your anti-aging arsenal. Do it. I guarantee some of these ingredients are in there — tretinoin is the number one anti-aging prescription in the nation — meaning your anti-aging regimen is, in fact, “aging” you. Fun!

Most of the shit we put on our faces “ages” us, actually. A healthy skin barrier together with a diverse skin microbiome provide a not-insignificant amount of protection from all forms of environmental exposure, but the overwhelming majority of beauty products — anti-aging or not — weaken the barrier and disrupt the microbiome, exacerbating exposure. Think of the top-recommended ingredients in the skincare space… exfoliating acids, retinol, benzoyl peroxide. All of these increase sun sensitivity and thus, exposure/“aging.” Of course, the fix is to be more diligent about sunscreen, but it’s not always as simple as that. A quick Google of “best sunscreens” pulls up products that feature denatured alcohol (a big barrier-stripper), fragrance (one of Dr. Loretta’s irritant-agers), and orange peel oil (which causes photosensitivity). (This is the best skin-supportive sunscreen if you’re in the market for one.)

I really don’t mean to dig on products, though; even water impacts the good ol’ barrier and 'biome. The point is: Interfering with our faces heightens our risk of exposure and preserving the barrier is as close as it gets to preserving “youth.” (On that note: Eat your antioxidants! There is zero evidence that applying vitamin C is more effective than ingesting it, plus you bypass that whole barrier-disrupting thing.)

Personally, I would add the typical Western diet and lifestyle to Dr. Loretta’s list of exposures, too. Sugar, alcohol, dairy, and unsustainable levels of stress = inflammation, hormonal shifts, oxidative stress, and nutrient deficiencies = gut microbiome imbalance; skin barrier degradation; dehydration; lipid peroxidation; and impaired production of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and other components of healthy skin = aging.

So if “aging” is actually exposure, and “anti-aging” products can cause more exposure, why was “anti-aging” positioned as “anti-aging” and not “anti-exposure” in the first place?

I think it’s a mix of things. Obviously, education. Anti-aging was a category long before the science of skin exposure emerged, and it does make sense — the longer you live, the more exposure you experience, and there is that 15% of age-related aging to consider. This is a great example of how science is always evolving and how false information so often becomes foundational, especially in dermatology. (For instance: Textbooks written in the 1970s and used for decades after taught soon-to-be-derms that diet had no bearing on the skin whatsoever. Today, we know that’s not true… although some older derms [including mine from years ago!] still stubbornly refuse to acknowledge this connection. There are the “bad” diet influences, like the above references to sugar and alcohol, but there are also the “good” influences! The skin barrier needs Omega fatty acids in order to function optimally, but it can’t synthesize Omegas on its own, so in this case, diet is a key way to support your skin. [Add nuts, seeds, and salmon to your grocery list.])

“Anti-exposure” isn’t a great way to sell products, either, since one of the pillars of exposure is… well, products.

But the big one, I’m convinced, is that environmental exposure is external and impersonal and aging is internal and very personal — and as any marketer will tell you, getting personal moves product.

Psychologically, blaming your own body begets shame and fear, two very effective motivators. (Society already has major issues with aging, aside from the physical effects — read this story and follow @thenapministry for more on how grind culture and productivity-as-worth factor into our fear of getting older.) Then, the existence of “anti-aging” products and procedures suggests that one can anti-age with enough time/money/effort. And if you theoretically can anti-age (you can’t) and you don’t (which you won’t), your shame and fear get amplified. You spiral. You pour in more time/money/effort, because there’s always a new device/surgery/injectable/miracle ingredient to try, and maybe you’re aging because you haven’t tried hard enough to stop it. I mean, Jennifers Lopez & Aniston are doing it!! It can be done, right? 

Put simply, “anti-aging” is a construct designed to keep us consumed with insecurity and consuming products. It’s a fear-based framework meant to elicit an emotion on which companies can capitalize (and keep capitalizing, as “anti-aging” goal that can never be met).

Shame + fear + (false) hope for a solution = a thriving industry.

Basically, it’s all bullshit. Here’s a better “anti-aging” routine for you:

Step 1: Protect your barrier.
Step 2: Minimize your products.
Step 3: Get politically involved in solving our planet’s pollution problem.
Step 4: Start thinking of “anti-aging” as “anti-exposure” and watch your shame dissipate.