For all non–bio majors, here’s what to know: Everyone has genes — they are made of DNA strands and given to you by your biological parents, and many remain largely unchanged throughout your life (once you have blue eyes, you’ll always have blue eyes). What changes with age is their activity level, which, in turn, affects your appearance. Those fine lines, dark spots, and gray hairs that creep up as you get older? Blame it on a slowdown in genetic activity.
Recently, Olay studied 2,500 women and found 10 percent of them to be exceptional agers — meaning they looked 10 or more years younger than they actually were. When researchers zeroed in on the skin-specific genes of those 10-percenters, some of those genes had higher activity levels than the other 90 percent of women.
So what did they do (or not do) to keep their genes more active and, as a result, become better agers? “It comes down to lifestyle choices,” says Frauke Neuser, PhD, Olay principal scientist. Studies show that 20 percent of skin aging is determined by internal factors you can’t control, while the other 80 percent is driven by external things you can control, she explains. The most important three, according to Neuser: the amount of time you’ve spent in the sun with the intent to tan, daily SPF use, and having a positive mental attitude (you know it as #PMA on Insta).
The first two are obvious (we all know the sun ages you). But the third — an optimistic outlook — is the most interesting ... and a growing trend in the beauty world. Positivity-centric wellness brands are on the rise (some, like Goop, have started selling their own skin-care products), celeb derms such as Harold Lancer, MD, are preaching the power of inner health for outer beauty (Kim K. and Victoria Beckham are two of his regulars), luxury brands like Chanel are studying the lifestyle habits of longevity hot spots, and partnerships between major companies and positive thought leaders (most notably, Philosophy and spiritual author and speaker Gabrielle Bernstein) are becoming the new norm.
Your Attitude and Aging
For phase two of its study, Olay partnered with 23 and Me (a biotech company focused on genetic testing) to measure positivity by asking women how strongly they agreed with the following statement: I have a positive attitude toward myself. Those who did were more likely to be exceptional agers — creating a link between positivity and better skin. But this specific data doesn’t reveal which factor leads to the other (a classic chicken-or-egg scenario). Are women positive because they look younger — or do women actually look younger because they are positive? Pros are saying the latter, for several reasons.
First, having a positive mental attitude can “trick” people into thinking you’re younger than you are. “Perception of age isn’t just physical,” says Traube, who compares the subjectiveness of assessing someone’s age to going on a first date. “You may meet someone and think that they’re moderately attractive, but based on their attitude and your interaction, that value of attractiveness can go up or down,” he explains. Similarly, you can meet someone with wrinkles who gives off great energy and think they’re younger than they actually are.
And Traube notes that people with a healthy mental attitude are more likely to take care of themselves and look better as a result. “Positivity is correlated with self-esteem, and women with higher self-esteem invest in themselves,” he explains. Think: eating a balanced diet, exercising, meditating, and sticking to a skin-care routine.
Your Skin on Stress
Positivity can also help you better deal with, and lower, stress levels (the higher your stress, the faster your aging). Howard Murad, MD, founder of Murad skincare, conducted a study in his L.A. practice with 40 female patients. He found that after just four weeks of reading note cards with positive affirmations and journaling thoughts, the women scored lower blood pressure and stress levels and higher levels of skin hydration (a major factor in a youthful complexion). Stress also causes hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (aka adrenaline) to skyrocket, says Nicholas Perricone, MD. The result: increased inflammation and protein loss (namely, skin-firming collagen). “Studies show that living mindfully — and positively — decreases these hormones,” adds Dr. Perricone, who refers to this as the brain-beauty connection.
Put simply, less stress — and a sunnier disposition — equals sexier skin. “When you have a positive mental attitude, you can choose to perceive obstacles as opportunities — instead of being derailed by them,” says Bernstein, whose latest book is called The Universe Has Your Back. “Not only does that make you a happier person, it makes you a more attractive one too.”
4 Ways to Pump Up the Positivity
1. Scroll smarter: Studies link extended social-media use to feelings of anxiety. Edit your feed to reflect things that bring you joy — or give yourself a digital detox day.
2. Connect IRL: Likes are great, but “humans thrive on face-to-face interactions,” says psycho-therapist Matt Traube. "Surrounding yourself with positive people fosters a happy self.”
3. Get real: Realistic people are happy people, says Traube. Setting unattainable goals can mean disappointment in the long run.
4. Talk it out: Voice your happiness once a day. It’s more empowering than you think. Saying it out loud means you’re more likely to act and feel grateful too.
Positivity works wonders, but that doesn't mean you can skip products. These pack the most punch.
A combo of retinol (a tried-and-true antiaging hero) and hydrators like glycerin targets wrinkles and dryness.
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream, $28, drugstores
This p.m. moisturizer uses Tahitian black pearl essence (known to improve skin’s ability to retain water) to plump fine lines and reduce crepiness.
AVON Anew Ultimate Supreme Advanced Performance Crème, $50, avon.com for representatives
Most vitamin C formulas are only water-soluble, leaving them less able to penetrate skin. This breaches H2O and oil to even out your whole complexion.
Dr. Dennis Gross C+ Collagen Brighten & Firm Vitamin C Serum, $78, drdennisgross.com
Antioxidant-rich actives (found in both this booster and cream) work at the cellular level to increase skin’s collagen and hyaluronic acid production. The result: crazy-glowy skin.
Olay Regenerist Miracle Boost Concentrate and Micro-Sculpting Cream, $27 each, drugstores
A truly broad-spectrum formula, this superscreen protects you from UVA, UVB, and damaging infrared rays. While the latter aren’t responsible for cancer, studies show they can trigger brown spots and redness.
Skinmedica Total Defense + Repair SPF 34 Sunscreen, $68, skinmedica.com
Inspired by the diets of humans who live in “blue zones” (areas of the world like Sardinia where people live a long, long time), this serum includes olive extract (rich in fatty acids) and green coffee (high in antioxidants) — both proven to help slow down the clock.
Chanel Blue Serum, $110, chanel.com
This article was originally published as "The Surprising Key to Beautiful Skin" in the February 2017 issue of Cosmopolitan.