In my younger years, I occasionally received compliments regarding the quality of my skin. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve received these compliments with increasing frequency. In every case, my sincere appreciation is given in the form of a blushed “thank you,” which is then almost always met with questions regarding my skin care routine. “What products do you use? How often? Are you gifted with great genetics?” Being of primarily English and Irish descent, I can assure you the latter is not the case given the expectation for well-aged skin is not good. For a group of people who see 68 days of sunlight exposure annually, you would think their skin would age better. As for the former, exploration of the topic has led me to the conclusion that, like most things in life related to health and appearance, people behave in ways unaligned with reality. That is, they do what doesn’t work while ignoring what works best. This has gone on for millennia.
Evidence suggests that as early as 3000 BC, people have attempted to improve their appearance through cosmetics (I define cosmetics as anything applied to the skin with “improvement” as the primary goal). In fact, we can examine the length of any period in history and see it is rife with examples of concoctions aimed at solving the problems of the skin. My personal favorite is that of Egyptian Queen Hatsheput. To combat her psoriasis, she applied a lotion that contained, alongside the harmless plant oils and animal fats, a highly carcinogenic substance called benzopyrene. It is estimated that this substance ultimately contributed to her early death. This example is emblematic of a story that persists throughout time: people care about the appearance of their skin and, in the pursuit of enhancing it, will often apply substances that lead to negative consequences. The snake oils and potions of the prior centuries that we laugh about now are in many cases not so different from the products of present day. In another hundred years, the products we use today will come under similar scrutiny while new products replace them. But if consumers are largely being duped by ineffective products they should avoid, what are they to do instead?
My experience has shown me that skin conditions for many people are more a result of what they currently do and should stop doing rather than what they need to start doing. For the record, I’m not claiming this as a universal solution, but it is an excellent place to begin. When you take a moment to consider what I’ve said, it shouldn’t be too surprising. Modern humans emerged approximately 300,000 years ago, early humans some 2.5 million years ago, and skin care products roughly 5,000 years ago. The rapid modernization of our society through technological advancement has led to innumerable attack vectors on our health. This creates what I called the “pharmaceutical effect,” in which advancements in one area of life come with potentially harmful effects in others. Our skin, being the largest organ and the gatekeeper to the rest of our body, routinely faces the brunt of the damage. In turn, we attempt to alleviate the symptoms of a conflict between evolutionary biology and modernization with technological fixes. Often these fixes fail to label risks, don’t work, and/or aren’t viable long term all the while separating you from your hard-earned dollar. Instead, we must look elsewhere to uncover the means for improved appearance.
Part II next…