We all know the tell-tale signs of age creeping up on us. The fine lines around eyes and mouth; the slight laxness under the jaw; the loss of that fresh-faced quality; the constant fatigue that requires an arsenal of brightening skincare and highlighters to camouflage.

None of this is fresh news. What’s different now, however, is these symptoms are not manifesting in 40-somethings (who are actually looking more and more youthful) but younger women who ought to be in their prime. And while some of them may not look old old, they certainly have a maturity and worldliness to them that’s way beyond their actual years.

Don’t believe us? Try flipping through the pages of any gossip rag. Lindsay Lohan is probably the most obvious car-crash of an example. But there are plenty others who aren’t wasted by drugs, alcohol and botched face jobs yet still look oldish – Lorde (21), Adele (29), Kylie Jenner (20) and Kate Upton (25) among them. When it comes to ageing, it seems 20 is the new 30.

Age and the city

It’s not just hard-partying, fast-living celebrities who are looking old before their time either. Modern lifestyle habits and the stresses of an urban environment mean that regular young women are susceptible to premature ageing too. At the top of the culprit list: excessive sun exposure and UV radiation, particularly if it occurred at a young age and in large doses.

Dr Alvin Wong, medical director of SKN Medi Aesthetics, says, “There is good clinical evidence to show that early sun damage on young skin is more harmful than exposure later in life, leading to premature skin ageing and even cancer.”   Dermatologist Dr Tan Kian Teo of Skin Physicians at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre adds, “Many young people like to have the tanned, healthy look and expose themselves more to the sun. With increased affluence and affordability of air travel, more people are also going for beach holidays where there is a lot of sun exposure.”

Another Big Bad is the increasingly polluted environment we’re living in. Not only are there more cars on the roads, we’re also dealing with more intense haze levels. “Environmental pollution affects air quality. I see an increased number of patients complaining of skin rashes and irritation when the haze is more severe,” says Dr Wong. “Skin conditions like eczema are also on the rise, which can lead to rough skin that looks old and wrinkled.”

For smokers, the problem is compounded. Smoking accelerates ageing because it reduces blood flow to the skin, starving it of oxygen and nutrients. It also damages collagen and elastin fibres. Yet more young Singaporeans, including women, are picking up the habit. According to figures in the 2010 National Health Survey, around 16 per cent of young Singaporeans aged 18 to 29 smoke regularly, up from 12 per cent in 2004. In addition, four in five smokers pick up the habit before they turn 21.

But perhaps the biggest change that sets this generation of 20-somethings apart from those a decade or two ago (and starts them on the road to premature ageing) is this – they are well and truly products of the internet age, where everyone lives in the fast lane.

“In our increasingly plugged-in society, there is a constant need to check our phones, messages, emails and social media for updates on both work and play. This means more stress and a lack of sleep. There’s no time for skin to repair itself, a function that mainly occurs during restful sleep. I always hear complaints from young patients who say that they are tired and want to sleep, but have difficulty doing so as their minds are constantly thinking,” says Dr Wong.

While there have been no formal studies conducted here on the sleep habits of the young, a 2007 survey of local teenaged students found that 80 per cent of them got less than the necessary eight hours of sleep on schooldays, with 66.5 per cent staying up late to study, surf the internet, chat online or watch television. On top of that, a 2005 global survey by AC Nielsen showed that 54 per cent of Singaporeans usually go to sleep between midnight and 2 a.m. (pretty much the time at which skin’s nocturnal repair peak if you were already in deep sleep).

Rae Tan, a 29-year-old bank analyst, says, “Most of my friends have been keeping late nights since university days and still do so now, usually because they’re online. The effects are quite obvious – severe eyebags, dark circles and just a general haggard look. It’s bad enough to get them worried, because often we’ll be discussing which concealers work best and what anti-ageing product to start using.”

In 2013, a study commissioned by Estee Lauder and carried out by doctor-scientists at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland conclusively showed that a lack of sleep dramatically speeds up skin ageing, with problems like fine lines, dark spots and skin sagging being twice as severe in those who are sleep-deprived.

Youth awareness

The explosion of internet use and social media – who’s up for a selfie? – has brought about another phenomenon: we are more aware of how we and others look than ever before, and boy do we talk about it. Type a skincare or product query into any search engine and in a few seconds you’d be bombarded with countless tips, reviews, news and reports from a myriad of sources, expert or otherwise.

To cater to the needs of the modern 20-something, cosmetic companies have begun rolling out products specifically designed to tackle the symptoms of tired, stressed young skin. According to both Dr Tan and Dr Wong, the signs of fatigue include dullness, dehydration and sagging, with rough texture and enlarged pores.

Shiseido, for instance, developed its Ibuki range precisely for the lifestyles and skin conditions of women in their mid-20s to mid-30s. The products don’t offer straight-out anti-ageing benefits. Instead, they aim to rebalance stressed skin and build its inner resistance so it can better ward off wrinkles and problems like hormone-related breakouts, skin dehydration caused by air-conditioning, and oiliness and visible pores after a big night out.

Sisley, too, has launched Sisleyouth, an anti-ageing serum for young customers who want to take preventive measures before the wrinkles and sagging start to show. According to the brand’s research, skin ageing starts with the deterioration of stem cells, with age 25 being the turning point at which everything starts to go downhill. Sisleyouth promises to stall that and maintain youthfulness by keeping skin’s stem cells healthy so they can continue to generate fresh skin.

Keeping up appearances

Fixes for fatigued young skin can also be found in doctors’ clinics. Dr Tan says that suitable procedures include intense pulse light, laser therapy and chemical peels or microdermabrasion to remove dull skin. “They can also consider topical applications such as tretinoin cream, which has proven anti-ageing properties such as improving skin texture and reducing fine lines. Vitamin C preparations also help due to their antioxidant benefits,” he adds.

Some celebrities, socialites and adventurous women opt to head overseas before a big event for vitamin cocktail drips that help to brighten and perk up their skin – a treatment that’s currently not approved in Singapore. Taiwanese celebrity dermatologist Dr Wu Ying Chin, founder of the Dr Wu skincare brand, for instance, is one who offers skin-whitening drips at his clinics and med-spas.

Dr Wu says the key ingredients in his drips are vitamin C and glutathione, an important antioxidant produced naturally by the body. “The advantage of using a whitening drip is that it helps to improve skin all over. As the ingredients go directly into the blood stream, they are much more readily absorbed and used by the body compared to oral or topical treatments. After three to four sessions, patients can see visibly fairer, more radiant and supple skin.”

Dr Wong, however, cautions against the use of such treatments. “Vitamin C and antioxidant injections are not allowed in Singapore and they can be dangerous. These products have not been passed for safety and people not trained in administering injections and drips can cause infections and permanent health damage,” he says.

Instead, he advises women in their 20s to establish some simple habits to keep their skin youthful, such as staying out of the sun, using a non-comedogenic sunblock, keeping hair and fingers away from the face and cutting down on alcohol and cigarettes to prevent dehydration an exposure to skin-ageing chemicals.

“There are also some known active ingredients to look out for. These include alpha hydroxy acids, salicylic acid, tretinoin and antioxidants such as vitamin C. Have a good skincare routine that incorporates some of these products,” says Dr Wong. “Cut down on the refined sugars in your diet, such as cakes and desserts. It’s a little known fact, but large amounts of refined sugars can cause a process called glycosylation in skin. This damages the skin and can lead to increased signs of ageing, including open pores,” he explains.

A version of this story first appeared in Female’s August 2014 issue.

Images: Showbit.com

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