Unlocking the Aging Secrets of Skin and Hair
Genomics, the study of an organism’s genes, helps us understand how our skin and hair age.
“Skin is a selective barrier — not a bullet-proof casing — that protects our delicate internal organs from external physical and toxic injury,” says Dr. Kucy Pon, consulting dermatologist to Olay (www.olay.com), about the capabilities of our body’s largest organ.
Melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer, is on the rise and, though it accounts for only three per cent of skin cancer cases, it causes more than 75 per cent of skin cancer deaths. Skin cancer is now the number 1 cancer in Canada, more than every other type of cancer combined and almost 50 per cent of those who live to be 65 will be diagnosed with skin cancer at least once in their lives.
The Canadian Cancer Society (www.cancer.ca) is also projecting 80,100 new cases of both non-melanoma and malignant melanoma skin cancers and 1,210 deaths in 2009. In light of such dire statistics, Toronto-based dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett (www.dlkonavenue.com) uses a two-part DNA cellular assessment kit, DermaDNA, created by VitalScience Corp.’s skin-care company Galderma to assess your risk for skin cancer.
Like in a CSI episode, a swab taken from the inside of the cheek can reveal a lot — including genetic markers for developing skin cancer. The second swab taken from the bridge of the nose identifies recent photo damage — only from the past two months because the skin regenerates itself in that time period. Long-term damage is assessed by visual skin changes such as moles, brown spots and wrinkles. The test takes 30 seconds, and results are known in two weeks. “I use it as a tool to make patients more aware of sun exposure and skin protection — and more diligent about checking their moles and monitoring changes in their skin,” says Kellett. “Darker skin types who think they don’t have to worry about skin cancer will think twice if they discover they’ve got the genetic markers for melanoma.”
But don’t we need the sun for our skin to make all-important vitamin D, necessary for calcium absorption and maintaining strong bones? “Protecting exposed skin can’t be overstated. Wearing protective clothing and using a broad spectrum sun protector day in and day out, spring, summer, fall and winter, is the most important thing you can do,” advises Kellett. “If you’re concerned with getting enough vitamin D, take a supplement. It’s not worth getting cancer.” (To find a DermaDNA centre near you, go to www.dermaDNA.ca.)
What We Know
Genomic research is also being used to better understand how our hair ages, says Dr. Jeni Thomas, senior scientist at
Pantene (www.pantene.ca). “As analytical techniques become more sensitive, hair is a hot tool for DNA, toxicology and forensics because it’s a track record of what you’ve consumed,” she adds.
Soon, she believes, genomics will provide breakthroughs into the underlying causes affecting hair’s growth cycle and colouring. In fact, in February, European researchers studying the genetic defect called vitiligo that causes lack of pigment (which Michael Jackson said he suffered from), found elevated levels of hydrogen peroxide in the skin. Since grey hair also results from an absence of pigment, scientists now theorize that some grey hair may be caused by these levels blocking the normal synthesis of melanin, your hair’s natural pigment.
What We Know
In general, after the age of 40 for both men and women, you will experience changes in hair colour, thickness and density. These changes are all hormonally driven and woven into your DNA. It’s an inevitable part of the aging process that melanocytes, the cells that produce the pigment, or melanin, slow down and stop producing hair colour. Research indicates greying, on average, occurs in Caucasian hair around the mid-30s, late 30s in Asian hair and 40s in African hair. Once formed, each hair has its own lifespan.
The three stages of this growth-rest-shed cycle are: the anagen growth stage that lasts roughly two to eight years; the transition catagen phase signals a stopping of any activity in the follicle, including pigment production and lasts about three weeks; and, finally, during the resting/shedding telogen phase that lasts three to five months, the follicle shrinks, the hair loosens and falls out. When young, the resting/shedding telogen phase lasts weeks and then goes back to work full time. With age, this resting phase gets longer and ultimately shuts down. And with age, the anagen growth phase shortens, hair thins and won’t grow as long.