Glycation: the process you never knew was wreaking havoc with your skin. We spoke to the experts to find out about the not-so-sweet facts about sugar and how to best prevent and slow down its ageing effects
The products on this page have been chosen by our editorial team. If you buy something we recommend we may earn an affiliate commission.
Sun exposure, smoking and now, sugar. In terms of anti-ageing, the sweet stuff could be causing significant damage to your skin by virtue of a process called glycation.
What exactly is glycation? “Glycation is a process where sugar molecules attach themselves to other molecules, for example proteins and fats,” explains Dr Stefanie Williams , dermatologist and author of Future Proof Your Skin: Slow Down Your Biological Clock by Changing the Way You Eat . “In the skin, the sugar molecules prevent collagen from performing its optimal function as a major supporting structure in our skin.”
Sugar's affect on your skin can be wide-ranging. “Glycation also causes other destructive reactions in our skin, including free radical formation, oxidative stress and inflammation, all of which accelerate ageing,” explains Dr Williams. “Each of these changes creates an environment that supports degradation of collagen and compromises integrity and regeneration of our skin.”
With defences depleted, its weakened state leaves skin more vulnerable to serious damage later on as well as the greater presence of lines and wrinkles, explains dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth: “Glycation also makes skin cells more susceptible to external stimuli such as sun damage and pollutants,” she explains. “Collagen and elastin are molecules which give our skin its natural plumpness. However, when sugars bind to these molecules, the skin becomes stiffer and less flexible, which contributes to the appearance of ageing.” More worrying though, its effects also extend to the body too. “It's also important to remember that glycation doesn't just affect skin,” says Dr Wedgeworth, “but joints, muscles and even the kidney too.”
What causes glycation?
The biggest risk factor that increases the level of severity is ultimately poor diet, explains Dr Williams: “Some degree of glycation occurs all the time, and that’s fine, but the extent of glycation in our skin is greatly increased by consuming a high sugar diet.”
In addition, there are also a number of other influences along the procession line that could be taken into account too, says Dr Wedgeworth: “Glycation can be a result of what we eat, but also due to intrinsic factors, i.e. our own bodies forming glycation products,” she comments. “Sugary foods or foods with a high glycaemic index and highly processed foods are likely to promote glycation. However, the preparation method may also have an impact, with fried foods likely to have higher concentrations of AGEs than boiled or steamed foods. Smoking is also thought to accelerate glycation within the skin. From the outside, UV radiation may stimulate binding of sugars to the skin, so if your skincare regime is lacking in sun protection, you may be exposing yourself more to the harmful effects of glycation.”
Is it possible to reverse its effects?
At this moment in time it looks unlikely. However, there are fortunately ways to prevent or slow down the process through glycation-proofing both your diet and skincare regime.
How to glycation-proof your diet
1. Cut down on sugar and starch intake: While also optimising your intake of other food groups. “For optimal skin health and longevity, we should moderate our sugar and starch intake,” recommends Dr Williams. “Integrate a FuturApproved® food plan into your life. This is a moderate protein, high (good) fat, carbohydrate reduced, very high vegetable way of eating.”
2. Up your antioxidants: “Antioxidants may be protective against the harmful effects of glycation,” recommends Dr Wedgeworth. “Make sure your diet is rich in vitamin C, selenium and zinc and incorporate foods such as blueberries, ginger and those high in natural flavonoids.”
3. Pick your protein wisely: “To supply our body with all it needs, we have to provide it with sufficient amounts of protein on a daily basis,” advises Dr Williams. “Protein provides important building blocks for our body and forms muscle, hair, skin and connective tissue. Protein is made up of smaller units called peptides , which in turn are made up of individual amino acids. As some of these amino acids, are ‘essential’, (i.e. our body is not able to manufacture them by itself), we need to make sure we ingest complete protein with our food.”
However, not all protein is created equal cautions Dr Williams. In her opinion, it often becomes a lot more difficult to maintain a skin healthy diet without animal protein due to its more all-inclusive make up and regular supplements would be needed to help fill the deficit and reduce the risk of micronutrient deficiency: “Generally animal protein, such as meat, fish and eggs, contains all the amino acids we need to support the biological functions of the human body in appropriate proportions. They are, therefore, described as 'complete,'” she explains. “Plant sources of protein (legumes, grains, vegetables etc.) on the other hand - even those touted for being particularly protein rich such as beans and lentils - contain considerably less protein than animal sources. Apart from very few exceptions, plant protein is also often missing one or more of the full range of amino acids. I recommend eating both animal and plant-based foods to obtain your daily protein quota.”
4. Don’t overdo the fructose: Even fruit looks like it isn’t exempt from the phrase, 'everything in moderation,' due to the presence of fructose according to Dr Williams. “Fructose (fruit sugar) is even more active in AGE (advanced glycation end product) formation than glucose,” says Dr Williams. “So avoid drinking fruit juices and fruit smoothies (and don’t overdo consumption of whole fruit - although that’s of course much better than fruit juice in its concentrated form of sugar),” she recommends.
5. Avoid sugar spikes: Slave to snacking ? You’re not alone. However, to keep the effects of glycation to a minimum, ensure meals are suitably filling to keep blood sugar and insulin levels on an even keel. “We are often advised to eat throughout the day to ‘avoid sugar lows’, which suggests that we are supposed to keep our sugar levels high throughout the entire day,” says Dr Williams. “However, high blood sugar levels make us age at lightening speed. The higher the average blood sugar level, the quicker we age. It is as simple as that. So to keep blood sugar and insulin levels, oxidative stress, glycation and inflammation processes down, we should avoid grazing. If your body is using fat as its main energy source and this is plentiful at all times, it won’t need sugar for its energy source.”
6. Up your almond intake: If you do find yourself feeling peckish in between meals though and are looking for a quick protein-packed snack to appease hunger pangs (with some added anti-glycation benefits), look no further than a handful of almonds. “In a fascinating study, almond ingestion had also been shown to reduce glycation processes in the body (Cohen et al. Metabolism. 2011), which means they may help with anti-ageing,” says Dr Williams.
How to glycation-proof your skincare regime
Is it possible to feed your skin with the right skincare ingredients to help prevent the ageing effects of glycation? Thankfully, yes - although Dr Wedgeworth points out that starting with your diet first will help reap better results: “There have been some studies suggesting the use of molecules which can break up the glycation products, but there is not enough evidence for these to be used routinely. Dull as it sounds, before we look to the new wonder molecule, we need to get the basics right. Shed the extra few pounds, reduce sugary and processed food in your diet and protect your skin from UV and oxidative stress. That's a really great start.”
As Dr Wedgeworth advises, sun protection plays a vital and necessary first step. “My skincare regimes will always incorporate daily broad spectrum UV protection,” she says. “ This shouldn't just be in bright sunlight because UVA is implicated in enhancing the glycation process - and this penetrates the clouds.”
Be critical of your products. It's not enough for them to smell nice and have fancy packaging - look for clinically proven ingredients in decent concentrations
Also look to boost your skincare with an effective cocktail of antioxidants too, advises Dr Wedgeworth. “Skincare needs effective antioxidant properties too. Vitamin C is an excellent antioxidant and niacinamide also has protective properties. Be critical of your products. It's not enough for them to smell nice and have fancy packaging - look for clinically proven ingredients in decent concentrations.”
In terms of helping fight the signs of glycation in the long-term, the future looks promising; however, it looks like further insight is needed in order to fully understand and treat all of its various effects. “There is still a lot of research going on as to how to stop the manifestations of this ageing process in the body, as it causes a variety of different reactions which all have to be stopped together,” points out biochemist and cosmetic scientist Nausheen Qureshi . However currently, an antioxidant rich skincare diet of proven ingredients appears to be the most promising of formulas. “Right now to inhibit these reactions, it seems that certain classes of ingredients are most effective: polyphenols that exist for example in green tea, phytochemicals in red grape skin and ellagic acid in pomegranate seed all help combat the effects of AGEs.”
Which products and treatments can help?
Beauty Pie Uber Youth Super Elixir Microbiome Mist-On Serum, members price £17.61, typical price £80
The skin microbiome balancing mist contains anti-glycation ingredient potentilla miyabei callus extract, along with actives that slow down the appearance of pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles and support the skin barrier too.
Not a member of Beauty Pie? Join using code GTGSENTME and get an extra £50 to spend.
Triology CoQ10 Booster Oil, £31.50
Created to specifically combat the signs of glycation due to key ingredient, Glycablend™, the age-proof range from Triology aims to protect and prevent in one fell swoop. “It’s a combination of pomegranate, blueberry, strawberry and chia seed oils which we had independently tested to prove its efficacy,” says Corinne Morley, in-house Trilogy expert. “The tests showed it stimulates the activity of skin cells and reduces the breakdown of collagen by up to 88.9%. This is what makes it so effective at improving the skin’s overall texture, fine lines and radiance.” We particularly recommend the Trilogy CoQ10 Booster Oil , £31.50, for giving skin a nourishing and highly hydrating pick-me-up.
Aveda Daily Light Guard SPF30, £28.90
Providing effective sun protection, minus the white streaks, this non-drying sunscreen provides a sheer yet effective barrier against UVA and UVB rays in a surprisingly nourishing formula that doesn’t feel heavy or greasy on skin.
Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, £145
A professional-grade product containing high concentrations of high quality vitamin C (notoriously hard to come by) and vitamin E, with the addition of ferulic acid to enhance its efficacy, simply use once a day in the morning after cleansing and before moisturising to help boost daily defences.