Our skin is the gateway between us and the outside world. Not only does it act as an important barrier between us and a harmful environment, it’s also the first thing we see when we look in the mirror. This doesn’t mean our appearance determines our self worth, but skin is undeniably related to our mental health.
As such, it’s of the utmost importance that we protect our skin. The problem is, as great as modern skin care products can be, the effective ones are often overly expensive. On top of that, it’s difficult for skin care treatments to be universally effective, as there is more than one skin type (Baumann, 2010).
For example, the Baumann Skin type indicator test measures your skin type on 4 parameters: oily or dry, sensitive or resistant, wrinkled or unwrinkled, and pigmented or nonpigmented (Baumann). Your skin can be any combination of these 4 factors, making it harder for general skin care to treat the specific needs of your skin. Is there any supplement to modern skin care treatments that is both free and universally effective? Yes, and it’s called exercise.
As we age, our skin begins to wrinkle and sag. However, these symptoms are partially a result of the natural processes that keep our skin youthful beginning to fail. Proteins like collagen and elastin, that keep our skin firm and elastic, slowly stop being produced as we get older (Obagi, 2005). In fact, according to Obagi, after the age of 20 collagen production decreases by 1% each year. This results in our skin becoming brittle and thin which contributes to the development of wrinkles (Obagi).
Likewise, the oil glands that keep our skin hydrated dry up as we get older; contributing to our skin becoming drier and eventually wrinkling (Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, 2013). In this sense, aging in our skin is partially determined by natural processes that occur deep within the skin.
But modern skincare treatments, like collagen-based creams and supplements, that claim to prevent aging and reduce wrinkles are not guaranteed to work. Since collagen production occurs deep within the skin, it’s almost impossible for collagen creams to penetrate the skin and have any effect (Newton, 2019). When it comes to collagen supplements, there’s currently very little research supporting that they actual restore collagen when digested (Newton).
The only option on the market with the actual evidence for restoring collagen is retinoids, but these often have harsh effects on your skin (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018). Fortunately, there’s a natural alternative for preventing aging, and it’s called exercise.
It’s been determined that exercise undeniably increases collagen production in your body (Langberg, Skovgaard, Petersen, Bülow, & Kjaer, 1999). But out of the 28 types of collagen in our bodies, types 1 and 3 directly contribute to our skin’s firmness (Bächinger, Mizuno, Vranka, & Boudko, 2010). This means that not all collagen produced affects your skin.
Exercise may also have the potential to increase collagen production in your skin as well. In a study reviewing the impact of exercise on tendons, type 1 collagen production was found to dramatically increase in the tendon tissue and partially in surrounding blood plasma (Langberg et al., 1999). From this, the study suggests that other types of collagen, like the collagen in your skin, may respond to physical stress from exercise.
Just as how the tendon tissue adapted in response to exercise, exercising your skin or the muscles near your skin may increase collagen production directly affecting skin firmness in these areas. While exercises like running may not specifically exercise a certain portion of your body (like your face), it may do so indirectly as it does with other areas of the body. On that note, current findings suggest that intense exercise over a long period of time, like running, is necessary for promoting collagen synthesis (Langberg, Skovgaard, Asp, & Kjær, 2000). But besides keeping our skin firm, exercise affects our body in much more immediate fashion.
When we think of exercise, we often think of sweating. The two are inseparable. But how does the sweat from exercise affect your skin? One study examining this concludes that sweating and exercise can keep the stratum corneum (or top layer of our skin) healthy (Wang, Zhang, Meng, & Li, 2012). This can be relevant to good skin care because our stratum corneum is responsible for protecting us from dehydration, toxins and bad bacteria (Sawyers, 2018).
The study found that the stratum corneum is hydrated for the entirety of an exercise session. At the beginning of an exercise, during light sweating, sebum (the oily substance on skin) is released. This release of sebum promotes additional water retention in the skin and prevents bacteria from crossing the skin barrier (Wang et al.). Keep in mind that bacteria in the skin can often negatively affect skin health.
But not all bacteria are harmful. In fact, our skin is host to resident microflora which actually fight off and regulate the presence of harmful bacteria (Bode Science Center, 2015). Microflora flourish when our skin is below a pH (or acidity) of 5 (Wang et al.). Notably, during light sweating it was found that the pH of our skin sometimes falls below 5, which is quite healthy as this allows resident microflora to flourish.
However, during excessive sweating (from moderate exercise) the study showed that pH of your skin will actually increase. But there is no need to be concerned, as 1 hour after exercise pH levels will drop further than they did during light sweating (Wang et al.). This means that excessive sweating is healthier for your skin in terms of pH, but the same cannot be said for sebum production.
Excessive sweating was found to lower the release of sebum, even after exercise was over. This can be harmful for your skin as having insufficient sebum weakens your defenses against bacteria and dehydration (Wang et al). When considering this, light exercise may be a better alternative to moderate exercise. Light exercise induces light sweating which promotes the ideal conditions for your skin. That being said, it is not as if moderate exercise, which promotes excessive sweating, should be avoided. Moderate exercise is better for lowering your skin’s pH, and, as mentioned earlier, is more ideal for promoting collagen synthesis. As far as the issue of reduced sebum production goes, the study recommends that applying a fat based cream after exercise could fix this.
We often focus on treating the symptoms of our issues, but not the issues themselves. Especially in the skin care industry, where companies act as if there is some miracle drug capable of returning your skin to its youthful exuberance. That is not to say that modern skin care is not important, or that exercise can replace it, but exercise does have its place. Skin care treatments deal largely with symptoms, whereas exercise is a natural process that helps the body to self-regulate and take preventative measures. Thus, ignoring the countless other benefits of exercise, it really is something that should be added to your skin care regime.
Bächinger, H. P., Mizuno, K., Vranka, J. A., & Boudko, S. P. (2010). Collagen Formation and Structure. Comprehensive Natural Products II,5, 469-530. doi:10.1016/b978-008045382-8.00698-5
Baumann, L. (2010). Baumann Skin Type Indicator- A Novel Approach To Understanding Skin Type. In Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 29-39)
Bode Science Center. (2015, June 30). Resident skin flora. Retrieved from https://www.bode-science-center.com/center/glossary/resident-skin-flora.html
Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. (2013, January 28). Why Does Your Skin Age? Retrieved from https://sites.dartmouth.edu/dujs/2013/01/28/why-does-your-skin-age/
Harvard Health Publishing. (2018, March 28). Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/do-retinoids-really-reduce-wrinkles
Langberg, H., Skovgaard, D., Petersen, L. J., Bülow, J., & Kjaer, M. (1999). Type I collagen synthesis and degradation in peritendinous tissue after exercise determined by microdialysis in humans. The Journal of Physiology,521(1), 299-306. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7793.1999.00299.x
Langberg, H., Skovgaard, D., Asp, S., & Kjær, M. (2000). Time Pattern of Exercise-Induced Changes in Type I Collagen Turnover after Prolonged Endurance Exercise in Humans. Calcified Tissue International,67(1), 41-44. doi:10.1007/s00223001094
Newton, A. (2019, July 02). Does Putting Collagen on Your Face Actually Do Anything? Retrieved from https://www.self.com/story/collagen-creams-supplements-skin
Obagi, S. (2005, September 27). Why does skin wrinkle with age? What is the best way to slow or prevent this process? Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-skin-wrinkle-wit/
Sawyers, T. (2018, September 27). Stratum Corneum: Top Layer of Skin Anatomy and Function. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/stratum-corneum
Wang, S., Zhang, G., Meng, H., & Li, L. (2012). Effect of Exercise-induced Sweating on facial sebum, stratum corneum hydration, and skin surface pH in normal population. Skin Research and Technology,19(1), 1-6. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0846.2012.00645.x