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Excess Sugar and Your Skin

Your sweet tooth could be preventing you from maintaining a healthy complexion. Here’s what’s happening beneath the surface
Written by 
Meghan Rabbitt
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Sure, you may think twice about having that extra slice of cake when you’re trying to reach your healthy weight, but the effects of eating too much sugar may also be noticeable in other ways when you look in the mirror. From fine lines to uneven pigmentation, overloading on the sweet stuff can compromise your skin’s health and appearance. And others may see it too: A recent study found that people with consistently high blood sugar levels—of which high sugar intake can be a cause—appeared noticeably older than those with lower levels. While it’s important to be mindful of how excess sugar can put you at risk for some serious health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and more, understanding its impact on your complexion could explain any concerns you have about your skin.


What’s Happening?

When sugar molecules enter your system, they attach to proteins floating around your body in a process known as glycation, which causes the protein fibers to become stiff and malformed. Scientists call these advanced glycation end products, or AGEs for short. Not surprisingly, the more sugar you eat, the more AGEs you’ll develop. Unfortunately, the proteins in your skin most prone to glycation are the ones that give you a smooth, youthful-looking complexion: collagen and elastin. So, while you might enjoy that nightly ice cream sundae, the sugar in that treat makes its way to the connective tissues under your skin, causing it to become weak and less supple. Over time, you’ll notice wrinkles, dullness and sagginess.

The presence of AGEs also makes your skin more susceptible to other saboteurs, such as cigarette smoke and UV light. Additionally, excess sugar causes inflammation in the body, which—along with affecting your health in larger ways—can surface as redness, acne, puffiness and even other skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema.


Gauging Your Consumption

You don’t have to give up sugar entirely in order to stop the damage. But it’s important to know your intake. Women should limit added sugar to 6 teaspoons daily and men should have no more than 9 teaspoons (the average American consumes 22.2 teaspoons a day). When reading food labels, keep in mind that there are 4 grams of sugar in one teaspoon. When choosing what to eat, consider all the unexpected sources of sugar too, like prepared sauces, salad dressings and other condiments.


Prevent the Damage

Research has also shown that vitamins B1 and B6 are potent AGE inhibitors. Load up on vitamin B-packed Brussels sprouts, beans, nuts and seeds, and ask your doctor if you might benefit from a supplement. Make sure your diet is rich in vegetables, as their antioxidants help combat the inflammation sugar causes in the body and neutralize the free radicals caused by the formation of those AGEs. Consider increasing flavonoid-rich foods as well—like apples, cinnamon, grape skin and red wine—which can help protect your skin’s collagen and improve oxygen delivery to cells.

If you know you’re going to indulge in dessert, go easy on the starches (which eventually convert to sugar) and other sugary foods earlier in the day. Or if you have toast and a big bowl of fruit for breakfast, opt for an extra helping of salad and pass on the bread basket at dinner.

Some topical treatments include ingredients that have been shown to block the formation of AGEs. Aminoguanidine, for example, attaches to molecules that start the glycation process and prevents them from binding to collagen and elastin. Another ingredient, alistin, encourages sugar molecules to attach to it instead of your skin’s proteins, so it gets damaged instead of your skin. You may want to look for these ingredients as you’re considering products.

Reference(s) 
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Age (November 2011)
American Academy of Dermatology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mayo Clinic
New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services
About the author 
Meghan Rabbitt is an editor and writer whose work has been published in Women’s Health, Fitness, Shape, Runner’s World, Prevention, Parents and Weight Watchers.