The beauty and skin care industry are saturated with products that make perfect skin seem not just attainable but standard. Anti-wrinkle creams, acne medications, expensive facials: No matter what the skin ailment, there’s a product that claims to fix it. According to data compiled by the U.S. Census and Simmons National Consumer Survey, 1.35 million Americans spent $500 or more on skin care products in a three-month period in 2017. Overall, the same data showed skincare makes up 36 percent of the global cosmetic market.
But store-bought and prescription products are not the only factors that keep skin looking polished. Our genetics also influence how our skin looks and behaves, but researchers are still parsing through just how much of our skin health has to do with our DNA, and investigations into exactly which genes affect our skin’s appearance is still in the early stages.
Genetics play a large role, but not the only role, in determining whether you have good skin, says Adam Friedman, professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Human bodies house between 20,000 and 25,000 different genes, which are made up of DNA, and these genes determine everything about us, including how our skin behaves. Genetics are largely responsible for our skin type (like whether we’re dry, normal, or oily), many skin conditions, and, to some extent, even wrinkles.
When genes work like they’re supposed to, they regulate skin cell production—telling the body to create new skin cells as older ones die. “However, when a [gene] does not function correctly, you may make too little or too much of a particular signal,” Friedman says, “which can cause cells to grow too quickly, causing skin-clogging problems such as acne, or limit the ability of the skin to repair and rebuild following injury.”
Friedman says research has identified gene mutations, which are alterations to the normal structure and function of a gene, in many skin conditions, from eczema to melanoma. Even acne, a researcher named Hugo Hecht found in 1960, has a hereditary component. While there’s no acne gene per say, Hecht found that acne runs in families and the condition can be more difficult to treat when there’s a family history. Today, as a result of further research, there are many treatments for reducing the appearance of acne, one of the most common skin conditions, even when it’s genetic.
Even if you won the genetic lottery in some respects, environmental factors also directly change how your skin looks and how your genes function—ultimately influencing how your skin’s overall health and appearance.
When it comes to aging, there are two important factors. “First, the genes you are born with affect how you age,” says Alexa Boer Kimball, a researcher and the chief executive officer at Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “But also, which genes are turned on over time matter, too. That can be affected by your inherent characteristics—but also what you are exposed to and what you do.”
A 2009 study that compared nearly 200 sets of identical twins showed that sun damage, pollution and smoking can add years to your face. UV exposure, for instance, is responsible for 80 percent of visible facial aging signs like deep fine wrinkles and pigmentation, or sun spots. Interestingly, researchers in the 2009 study found that stressful life events can also age you. Divorced women in the study appeared 1.7 years older than twins, possibly due to stress. Apparently, inflammatory events like acne and psoriasis have also been linked to stress in the past.
Kimball says work is still ongoing to understand and quantify the effects of air pollution on skin aging. “It would make sense that it makes a difference, but we don’t yet know how much exposure for how long affects these changes,” she says.
In a study she published in 2017 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the increased expression of certain genes also has an impact. The study showed that certain proteins found in healthy skin were found in both young women’s skin and the skin of women who were older yet whose complexion made them look far younger than they were.
“We were testing whether the genes being activated in people who had younger appearing skin showed different patterns than average aged people,” she says.
In the women who looked younger than their age, Kimball saw increased activity in genes associated with DNA repair, cell replication, response to oxidative stress, and protein metabolism, as well as a higher expression of genes associated with mitochondrial structure, metabolism, and epidermal structure — all of which can impact the appearance of skin.
Friedman says this study has practical applications: “If we can selectively turn certain genes off and others on, these new gene patterns could improve the appearance of skin as we age.”
Earlier this year, Keshav Singh, a researcher and professor of genetics, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found another genetic connection to aging. In a paper published this July in Nature, Singh reported the results of a study that looked at the impact of mitochondrial DNA (or mtDNA) depletion in mice, and found that restoring that mtDNA could reverse the signs of aging.
Mitochondria are the parts of a cell that turns fats, sugars, and proteins into chemical energy to help us live. They have their own DNA, spanning about 16,500 DNA building blocks and containing 37 genes, that are responsible for normal mitochondrial function.
“Decline in mitochondrial DNA content and mitochondrial function has been observed in aging humans, but its role in skin aging has been unclear,” Singh says. With that in mind, he wanted to see if loss of mtDNA led to physical signs of aging.
And it did—at least in mice. In the study, Singh found that the depletion of mitochondrial DNA led to wrinkles and hair loss in the mice. “The main finding is that by restoring mitochondrial function we can reverse skin wrinkles to normal healthy skin and also regain hair growth,” he said.
The results still need to be confirmed in humans, so it’s unknown whether restoring mitochondrial function would reverse the the signs of aging in humans. But Singh hopes this research could potentially lead to treatments for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who lose their hair, or to develop better topical treatments for wrinkles.
Friedman says this kind of research is helpful for developing ways to manipulate our genes to produce better health outcomes and even impact the appearance of skin. But, in the meantime, a good skincare regimen does have a place in helping us achieve good skin, even if we’re genetically predisposed to a certain extent.
Things like sunscreen to prevent signs of aging; moisturizer, which help the skin look younger; and topical retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids, promote cell turnover and combat acne and signs of aging, are proven to make a difference, Kimball says. But how much of a difference depends on genetics and environmental factors. “In the best scenarios, it’s likely to be years not decades, she says, but it’s definitely a measurable and ascertainable effect.”