Written for and published in Dermascope Magazine, April 2019 by Dr. Annette Tobia

“Sugar and spice and everything nice” is what little girls were said to be made of, which is a lot better than the “snips and snails” that was the stuff of little boys. As a young girl, having sugar as a basic building block may seem fantastic, but when it comes to skin health and aging it is anything but. The simple truth is that sugar is a toxic, skin-aging accelerator. And, it comes with no gender bias. It kills skin health and beauty equally in men and women.

To learn why sugar harms skin, let’s avoid all the hype and turn to science to explain why sugar is a skin killer. True, a certain amount of sugar in the body’s blood is normal and even necessary as fuel for the body, but elevated levels of blood sugar is likely to cause big-time problems, principle among them, diabetes. But – and this is important – an individual does not have to be a diabetic to suffer the damaging skin effects of too much sugar.

WHY DOES SKIN AGE?

In 1990, researchers at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, now part of Temple University in Philadelphia, identified a compound in lenses in the eyes of diabetic rats. This compound, fructose 3-phosphate (F3P) is not present in normal lenses. This discovery led to the holy trinity of questions in scientific inquiry: what is this new stuff, where did it come from, and what does it do?

F3P is a product of glycation. Glycation occurs when the overabundance of sugar in the blood causes that sugar to fuse with proteins (in the form of amino acids) in the blood to produce glycated proteins. This process not only occurs inside the body, but it can  occur outside the body when proteins are cooked with sugar. For example, cheesecake (eggs, milk, and sugar) and sausage (meat and sugar) are both foods where glycation occurs in their production. Even cooking Chinese foods causes glycation when proteins (beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp) and sugar (either as a direct ingredient or in the form of corn starch) are cooked together. Two important proteins in the skin, collagen and elastin, are especially sensitive to glycation.

After glycation, the resulting protein-sugar combination is rearranged in the body’s cells. These rearrangements are aided by enzymes that add a phosphate molecule to the protein-sugar combination. The researchers at Fox Chase discovered that one specific enzyme, fructosamine-3-kinase (FN3K), produces a molecule that automatically rearranges to form a compound called 3-deoxyglucosone (3DG).

3DG is a highly reactive and toxic molecule. 3DG leads to the formation of toxic sugars that cause inflammation, fibrosis, oxidative stress, and collagen crosslinking – all of which contribute to the aging and wrinkling of skin. Moreover, 3DG leads to the formation of detrimental compounds known as advanced glycation end products. Even the acronym for these compounds, AGEs, suggests getting older!

In a nutshell: protein and sugar combine, enzymes react with the protein-sugar combination to form a product that automatically rearranges to form 3DG and AGEs, and 3DG and AGEs cause skin to age, becoming wrinkled and crepey, suffering inflammation, and losing its elasticity. 

YOUNGER-LOOKING SKIN IN THE GAME

The average adult has 22 square feet of skin, weighing about eight pounds. That is a lot of skin in the game! Besides being the body’s largest organ and one of the most important, skin is what gets immediately noticed in every game played in life, from stepping out with friends to stepping up for that dream job interview. Knowing what drives skin aging is as important as knowing how to inhibit the skin-aging process.

To fight back against skin aging, encourage clients to start by avoiding sugar intake, especially from processed foods. The initial sugar-protein interactions are less likely to occur with reduced blood sugar levels. To treat the reactions on sugars that do get consumed, use skin care products that contain ingredients designed to both cripple the FN3K enzyme and diminish 3DG’s effectiveness in damaging the skin. This is the best recipe for youthful, more vibrant-looking skin, regardless of what the body is originally made of.

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