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Study reveals unique 'fingerprints' of youthful skin

You know how some people are often told “you look young for your age” or “you don’t look a day over 30?” Here’s why.

A study commissioned by Olay and conducted by a leading university in collaboration with personal genetics company 23andMe has discovered that youthful-looking skin has unique “fingerprints,” creating a new understanding of the role that genes and gene expression play in the skin’s aging process.

The Multi-Decade and Ethnicity study compared the skin of about 350 Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and Asian women ranging in age from 20 to 74. Researchers looked at three areas of the body—the face, the forearm, and the buttocks—to understand the progression of aging at different stages in life, and with and without UV exposure. Of most significance was the discovery that about 10 percent of the participants looked significantly younger than their age, and that these “exceptional skin agers” shared a common gene expression profile.

“There are women whose skin defies the aging process,” said Frauke Neuser, principal scientist at Olay who was involved in the design and analysis of the study. “Their genes display different activity profiles over the decades.”

Every human cell contains about 20,000 genes. Some of these genes are related to the appearance of youthful skin, such as the production of collagen and antioxidants and the repair of DNA. But how these genes behave over time varies from person to person. Researchers are still analyzing the full results of the study, but preliminary findings show that the “exceptional skin agers”—those who looked more than 10 years younger than women of their same age—shared a common gene expression profile of about 2,000 genes.

“In most of us, certain genes related to youthful skin (such as collagen production) slow down with age—meaning we make less collagen—meaning we get more wrinkles and sagging,” Neuser said. “In the exceptional skin agers, these genes don’t seem to slow down (or not as much)—they keep behaving and being as active as they were when the women were 20 years old.”

According to a professor of dermatology at the university, “women whose physical appearance appeared younger than their actual age showed gene activity patterns that were similar to people who were in fact younger.”

The study also found that women of certain ethnic backgrounds appear to age better than others. For example, less than 10 percent of the Caucasian women surveyed looked ten years younger than their actual age, compared to more than twice that many of African American women. Caucasian women also experience a decrease in antioxidant production earlier in life than others. Antioxidants help protect skin from premature aging due to environmental factors such as UV exposure. 23andMe helped determine the participants’ exact ethnic backgrounds and genetic makeup.

Scientists believe that lifetime UV exposure can cause up to 80 percent of visible aging signs in certain populations. That’s partly because environmental factors such as UV play a role in how genes express themselves.

“You can affect gene expression by simply going into the sun or not going into the sun,” Neuser explained. “If you go out in the sun for 20 minutes, UV rays get into your skin cells, they can damage your skin cells and damage your DNA. That’s why in that situation for example the cells would switch on genes responsible for DNA repair” Tanning is evidence of skin damage. “Even in women with darker skin types, you can see the damaging effects of sun exposure,” said Kimball.

Neuser recommends taking care of your skin the way we already know how to: by avoiding too much sun exposure and by always wearing broadband UV sunscreen products like Olay’s Regenerist Micro-sculpting cream with SPF 30, when used as directed.

“You can’t change your genes, but you can affect the 80 percent [of skin’s aging due to environmental factors],” she said. “By changing the skin’s environment—where you are, what you put on it—you are affecting what’s going on underneath.”

Olay Regenerist Micro-sculpting Cream with SPF 30 is available at: