The Root of Aging

The Science of skincare continues to evolve with new enlightening discoveries on a seemingly daily basis. However, new discoveries, at least those that are truly effective, are usually the by-product of long and careful research that results in a solid understanding of the skin's response and often a new understanding of the skin's overall function. Most recently, scientists have become increasingly aware of the long-term effect inflammation has on the skin's health and appearance. It goes without saying that for most spa-goers, particularly those past the age of 30, aging is a primary concern.

The Skinny on Inflammation

The perception of inflammation, for many people, is that it is the body's response to injury or infection stemming from a cut or bruise. This results in visible redness and swelling as the skin begins to react to the injury. What is actually happening is the normal and protective response of the skin's immune system. The skin protects the body from invasion by foreign cells such as bacteria and other harmful pathogens.

When the skin is broken through injury, these foreign cells invade the skin and can cause infection and disease with a cascade of events. The first is the release of free radicals, which damage the skin's structures due to oxidation and other related effects. The body recognizes this assault and immediately rushes white blood cells and other immune cells to the site of injury. Immune cells have a variety of components that attack the invading foreign cells and begin to repair the skin. Swelling occurs because of this extra fluid that has been transported to the site of the injury. Redness and warmth are the results of extra blood flow to the area. The deeper and larger the injury, the more evident the skin's response as it begins the healing process. We can literally watch a healing transformation occur over a relatively short span of days on our skin. If the body does not begin the healing process immediately, cells die, and those injured sites never recover.

Inflammation's Effect on the Skin

In daily life, there is a more pervasive and undetected form of inflammation—called sub-clinical inflammation—that is often completely invisible on the skin. Sub-clinical inflammation is the result of low-level injury that occurs repeatedly over time. With each low-level injury, the body reacts in the same way as it would to a more serious injury, with the same cascade of events. Although it reacts less, if the injury occurs regularly, the body's reaction will be regular as well. A key factor to the body's recovery is time, and if there is constant injury, the body cannot recover. Eventually, the body's healthy reserves simply get used up and the effects begin to accumulate. Cell damage occurs, just as it would with more severe injuries.

The skin is made up of millions of cells, which in turn make up many different types of molecules and compounds, such as lipids and proteins. These molecules and compounds all work together to give form, structure, and strength to the skin. Collagen and elastin are two other examples. Collagen gives form and strength, and elastin provides suppleness and elasticity. Hyaluronic acid is another example. This large molecule distributes and holds moisture throughout the skin. Persistent sub-clinical inflammation over time can cause cell death and deterioration. Eventually, the skin's structures cannot recover. This results in the breakdown of critical components, including collagen and elastin, and leads to visible changes on the skin—loss of elasticity, sagging, wrinkles, and discoloration—all signs of aging.

The Grounds for Inflammation

Sub-clinical inflammation has many causes. Disease can be an issue, as can environmental factors, such as pollution. More significantly, lifestyle choices are critical, and that's where you and your staff come in. Educating clients on how the decisions they make can impact the appearance of their skin is the first step in helping them to make better informed choices. Sun exposure—even in the absence of sunburn—is a key cause of inflammation. Diet, smoking, and overeating all add to the negative effects caused by inflammation. And scientists are finding that daily stress is playing a much larger role than ever realized. Feeling rushed, overworked, fatigued, or short-tempered is a natural reaction to daily stress. Not surprisingly, this can take quite a toll on the body and skin. Working to reduce stress is a positive step toward preventing the visible signs of aging. Keep that in mind when you're promoting your spa's stress-relieving massages and body treatments. Not only do these professional hands-on treatments help reduce stress, but they are also beneficial in improving the overall health of the skin by helping to reduce the inflammation caused by stress.

Anti-Aging Allies

To help your clients combat signs of aging, consider incorporating the anti-aging power of plants into your treatment menu. It's interesting to note that both humans and plants share some of the same types of daily stress factors. Plants are made of lipids, proteins, and other structures. Because they cannot move into the shade to protect themselves from too much sun, they have evolved natural protection factors to stop free radicals and prevent oxidation. Plants get injured just as we do, and so they have evolved very efficient repair mechanisms. As they are often subjected to poor food sources, they have evolved ways to maximize the nutrition they do receive. These plants, if properly extracted and used in appropriate products, have powerful and complex protective ingredients that can act just as effectively on the skin's structures as they do on their own. The signs of aging can be remarkably improved and, in some cases, erased.

For instance, the benefits derived from plants can be incorporated into skincare regimens and treatments by using products containing botanicals that have anti-inflammatory, hydrating, and antioxidant properties. Certified organic argan oil is a very popular skincare ingredient and can be found in a variety of professional and prestige brands. In fact, it's featured in Aveda's Green Science line, serving as both a fatty acid replacement and lipid replenishment to help restore skin's moisture barrier. Certified organic plai oil is another powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredient. It hails from Thailand and is part of the ginger family. Certified organic cactus helps skin naturally inhibit the destruction of collagen and boosts collagen synthesis. Both contribute to an overall visible plumping of the skin. Glucosamine can be used to aid in moisturization. It also smoothes and exfoliates the skin, and boswellia is an anti-inflammatory plant that helps keep skin calm so it naturally protects against elastin degradation. These ingredients, when combined with ceramides and peptides, can help restore skin's moisture barrier, addressing the visible effects of skin aging and creating a more youthful look and feel to the skin.

Sub-clinical inflammation and the associated effects on the skin are the result of daily exposure to various factors, such as sun, stress, poor nutrition, and overly aggressive skin treatments. In addition to diet, exercise, and stress-relieving activities, researchers are continuing to discover powerful plant-derived ingredients that are able to combat these effects, leading to a significantly improved appearance and reduction in the overall appearance of aging. Keeping these botanicals in mind when choosing your spa's product lines and designing your treatment menu can give your spa and clients the edge when it comes to turning back the clock. —Pat Peterson