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We Ask a Derm: Does Sugar Really Make Your Skin Sag?
McKenzie Cordell for PureWow

It’s no secret that consuming too much sugar has negative effects on your health. Too much sugar in your diet (especially those found in processed foods like soda, cereal and packaged snacks) has been linked to the inconvenient (i.e., cavities, bloating and weight gain) and the insidious (diabetes, heart disease and cancer).

But here’s something you might not have known: “Having excess sugar in your body can also have profound effects on the skin through a process called glycation,” says Christine C. Kim, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles.

Um, what the heck is glycation, doc? 

“Glycation is a process that occurs when sugar and its byproducts attach to various fibers and proteins in our body. This creates molecules called advanced glycation end products or AGEs,” explains Rachel Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist in New York.

“Glycation is a natural process that begins in our 20s even with normal glucose levels, but diets that are high in sugar can accelerate the formation of AGEs,” adds Kim. “In the skin, AGEs weaken collagen fibers and elastin, which results in visible signs of aging including fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and skin thinning.” (It’s not lost on us that the acronym itself literally spells out A-G-E.) 

How much sugar is too much sugar when it comes to glycation and skin?

“There’s no clear answer to this question, but the least amount possible is best,” advises Nazarian. “Start by making the move away from high-glycemic index foods (like those aforementioned sodas and packaged snacks) that can spike your blood sugar levels quickly and aim to only eat sugars from natural sources like fruits and vegetables instead.”

Another thing to consider: Once glycation occurs, it can’t be reversed. So, your best bet is to prevent glycation in the first place by eating a healthy diet that is low in sugar.

Still, if you want some metric or number to aim for as a starting point, “The American Heart Association recommends an added sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for men,” shares Kim.

Notice they say added sugar. “The good news is that whole foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains have natural sugars which do not count toward your daily recommended sugar intake.”

What else can I do to combat the effects of glycation on skin?

“Aside from embracing a low-sugar diet, the best way to combat the effects of glycation are to increase the number of antioxidants you’re getting both topically and orally,” says Nazarian. “Topically, I recommend adding skincare ingredients like vitamin C, E, A, and a cocktail of other natural antioxidants such as green tea extract, resveratrol, and bakuchiol to your routine.” (Kim also recommends using a mineral sunscreen and likes Yes to Avocado Fragrance-Free Daily Mineral Lotion because it delivers broad spectrum sun protection, as well as antioxidant benefits.)

“Oral antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables, but you can also add supplements to your diet like Heliocare Daily Use Antioxidant Formula, which contains a fern extract that helps protect against daily free radical damage,” adds Nazarian.

RELATED: How to Detox from Sugar (with as Few Withdrawal Symptoms as Possible)

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