Why Do We Age Differently?

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Photo: Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

She’s not a vampire (she might use a cream made of blood, though). She’s not a member of the Tuck Everlasting family. She hasn’t made a deal with the devil or David Blaine. Some people age so well they need to defend their status as human beings (like Pharrell Williams, who recently went “on the record” to confirm that he was not a long-lost Cullen). While good behavior (staying out of the sun, foregoing smoking) an effective skin-care routine (cleansing and moisturizing), and doctor procedures all have something to do with it, plain science and genetics also have a hand in how your skin ages. To learn why some people appear to age at a different rate than others, the Cut talked to plastic surgeon Dr. Dara Liotta about how your genes and ethnic makeup affect the way you age. Here’s how your skin tone, the fat content of your skin, and DNA can keep you naturally baby-faced for longer.

Aging isn’t just about wrinkles. Most of us hear the word aging and think one thing: wrinkles. Or at most, two things: wrinkles and sagging skin. But according to dermatologists, the majority of people experience a combination of wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, loss of elasticity, and loss of volume (meaning the opposite of flatness), as they age. How fun. On top of that, the texture and color of your skin affect the likelihood of it exhibiting these characteristics. With the march of time, elastin and collagen become looser (collagen even eventually stops being produced over time). Fat cells also start to shrink.

“Thick” skin is a literal compliment. Traditionally, Dr. Liotta explains that if you have thicker skin, the signs of aging are less noticeable. “When the dermis is thicker, cells are more densely packed together and more compact. You don’t see fine lines and wrinkles as much.” DNA determines whether you were born with thick skin. But Dr. Liotta confirms that genetically, those with more melanin-rich skin (such as Hispanic, Mediterranean, Asian-American, and African-American people) are pre-disposed to have thicker skin, resulting in wrinkles that look less prominent. Ever wonder why wrinkles are more noticeable on your forehead or under the eyes? That’s where skin is thinnest.

Don’t fat-shame your skin. Plump skin actually has positive connotations, attributed to youth. In South Korea, the beauty ideal for skin is something called chok chok — a term that means “plump and moist.” According to Dr. Liotta, your genetics can determine whether you have higher fat content in deeper areas of the skin. While you may bemoan that composition in other parts of your body, for your face, it means that you can “maintain that plump, hydrated look for longer.” She also confirms that African-American and Asian people tend to have higher fat content in their skin.

Your skin tone and sunburn-likelihood affects how you age. Melanin, the pigment that gives your skin and hair its color, affects aging. The higher you fall on the Fitzpatrick scale, which categorizes skin tones according to numbers 1 (for very fair and prone to sunburns) to 6 (for very dark skin that rarely burns), the more melanin your skin contains. Dr. Liotta explains the anti-aging protection of melanin this way: “Melanin confers UV protection.” While it doesn’t mean that people with melanin-rich skin don’t need to wear sunscreen, “just having that melanin is like having SPF 13 or higher all the time.”

If you’ve ever read a beauty article, you know that the sun and its UV rays are bad for the skin. “UV radiation is the number-one extrinsic ager — meaning an aging factor that’s not within your DNA. It causes molecular damage to your DNA,” says Dr. Liotta. Your skin is made up of collagen and elastin — materials that make up the structure that holds up your skin. The sun and its UV rays break down collagen and elastin, which leads to sagging and other signs of aging.

Melanin-rich skin has the benefit of additional built-in UV radiation, but also tends to show aging in a form other than wrinkles. Melanin confers pigment that can also translate to hyperpigmentation and sun spots, which is why this is a primary aging concern for those on the darker end on the Fitzpatrick scale. “In melanin-rich skin such as in Hispanic, Asian, and black skin, you notice hyperpigmentation and sun spots more so than in Caucasian skin, because of melanin,” says Dr. Liotta. Asian may not raisin, but we do speckle. The greater amount of “whitening” and brightening skin-care products offered in Asian countries addresses hyperpigmentation and dark-spot-correction beauty concerns (for example, Dior has a line called Diorsnow that is sold online, but not in United States stores).

But that doesn’t mean that simply because you don’t come from a melanin-rich background, you’re doomed to age more rapidly. “Nutrition, skin care, exercise, all still play a huge part — these are all things that help keep your skin and body from showing signs of molecular damage and being reparative to your DNA,” says Dr. Liotta. Extrinsic and intrinsic aging factors are so intertwined that, Dr. Liotta says, “it’s impossible to estimate a percentage as to how much genetics affect aging. We do tend to age like our mothers. It’s significant, but aging is a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (how we treat our bodies and faces).” You may have been born one way, but when it comes to aging, nature doesn’t trump nurture.

Why Do We Age Differently?