Sugar-Coated: How Sweet Treats Damage Your Skin and What to Do About It

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Sugar-Coated: How Sweet Treats Damage Your Skin and What to Do About It

If you get a big box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day, proceed with caution. That’s the advice of the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which recently announced new guidelines about how much sugar is healthy to eat. Curious as to what the sweet stuff may be doing to our skin, we asked board-certified dermatologic surgeon Dr. Joel Schlessinger for some tips to see us through Valentine’s.

RealSelf: We know that sugar can do damage to our gut, but how can sugar damage our skin?
Dr. Joel Schlessinger: A high-sugar diet can affect your skin from the inside out. Sugar molecules attach to collagen and elastin proteins in the skin through a process called glycation. This process produces advanced glycosylation end-products, or AGEs for short. AGEs are free radicals that lead to inflammation, breaking down collagen and elastin in the skin. As a result, skin loses firmness and wrinkles begin to form.

RS: Are certain age groups more or less susceptible than others?
Dr. Schlessinger: When you’re younger, your skin is producing more collagen and the effects of sugar aren’t as apparent. The first signs of glycation start to show around the age of 30 or 35, and it gets worse with age. As production slows and healthy collagen and elastin break down, skin begins to sag. When we eat foods that are high in sugar, the sugar molecules attach to these proteins in the skin, breaking down what little healthy collagen and elastin we have left.

Foods that spike your blood sugar also trigger hormones, which then stimulate oil production and lead to acne.

RS: Are there any telltale signs of someone who is consuming a lot of sugar?
Dr. Schlessinger: You won’t be able to tell someone has had too much sugar in the same way you might be able to tell someone has had too much to drink, for example. But sugar does have physical effects. Eating lots of sugar tricks your body into feeling hungry, even if you just had a snack. It also gives the body a jolt of energy followed by fatigue. Studies show it takes only 30 minutes for your body to go from a sugar rush to a sugar crash. Additionally, eating too much sugar over time will lead to more pronounced wrinkles and a loss of firmness.

RS: Can sugar age you?
Dr. Schlessinger: When the sugar in your bloodstream attaches to the proteins in your skin, this creates new AGEs. The glycation process leads to a breakdown of collagen and elastin. When the sugar attaches to collagen and elastin fibers, they become stiff and break down. This damage is seen in the form of fine lines, wrinkles, and dull, sallow skin. AGEs can also interfere with the production of new collagen and elastin, preventing your skin from naturally repairing itself.

RS: Can sugar make you break out?
Dr. Schlessinger: The candy you eat could be partially to blame for your acne. There is evidence that carbohydrates can actually cause breakouts. Studies show eating foods with a high glycemic index, like candy, can lead to acne breakouts. (The glycemic index measures how carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels.) This is because foods that spike your blood sugar also trigger hormones, which then stimulate oil production and lead to acne.

RS: Which high-sugar foods and beverages are the worst offenders?
Dr. Schlessinger: Soft drinks and candy are perhaps the worst. But there are also seemingly healthy foods that are high in sugar, like canned fruit and yogurt with fruit. Always check the labels to make sure the food you’re eating doesn’t have high amounts of sugar. Watch out for added sugars on the ingredient list like sucrose or high fructose corn syrup. There are healthy alternatives you can eat in place of your favorite foods. For example, instead of eating a pre-packaged yogurt cup with added fruit, add slices of your favorite fruit to plain yogurt.

If you want a glass of wine this Valentine’s Day, opt for red instead of white. Red wine has less fructose.

RS: How much sugar is OK to eat?
Dr. Schlessinger: Men should have no more than 37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar a day, while women should limit themselves to 25 grams or 6 teaspoons. Of course, if you have diabetes or other health conditions, that number could be much different. Because sugar is extremely addictive, just one day of too many sweet treats could lead to an everyday occurrence. The more sugar you eat, the more you will crave.

RS: How much sugar would you have to cut out of your diet to see a change in your skin? If you quit sugar for a week, will it benefit your skin?
Dr. Schlessinger: Cutting out sugar will help you reduce your cravings for the sweet stuff. The less sugar you eat, the less you’ll crave. Your tastes will adjust and the treats you once enjoyed will seem too sweet. You’ll also start to notice that fruits and vegetables have a natural sweetness to them, and they’ll taste better.

It would be difficult to curb your sugar cravings in a week. You should give yourself about a month to give your body and taste buds time to adapt. Start with your biggest source of sugar and go from there. For example, if you take your morning coffee with cream and two sugars, start by cutting it down to one sugar. Eventually you’ll be able to drink your coffee with only a splash of milk.

RS: When it comes to your skin, is all sugar created equal?
Dr. Schlessinger: Fruits, vegetables, and grains also turn into glucose when they’re digested, but they don’t have the same effect on the body. Foods that quickly convert to sugar cause sudden spikes in blood sugar levels, as well as an increase of inflammation throughout the body. These refined sugars are more likely to form AGEs and lead to wrinkles.

RS: What about refined sugar alternatives like agave?
Dr. Schlessinger: Agave has a low glycemic index, so it won’t stimulate the glycation process as quickly as refined sugar would. But this sugar alternative is high in fructose. Regular sugar is about 50% fructose, while agave can be up to 90% fructose. Most sugar alternatives are almost as bad as regular sugar.

The darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain.

RS: How does alcohol fit into the equation? Are certain alcohols better than others? Why?
Dr. Schlessinger: Alcohol dehydrates the body, causing skin to look red, blotchy, and bloated. Drinking alcohol prevents the production of vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone that the body uses to absorb water. This causes the kidneys to work twice as hard to remove excess water from your system, leaving all of your organs, including your skin, dehydrated.

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol also contributes to premature signs of aging. Fine lines and wrinkles easily form on dry, dehydrated skin and the complexion often becomes pale, dull, or gray, adding years to your appearance. Additionally, drinking alcohol deprives the body of essential nutrients like vitamins, electrolytes, and fluids. As you lose these key nutrients, your skin looks less healthy and vibrant. It’s also harder for your body to naturally rejuvenate dull skin because alcohol depletes your body’s natural sources of vitamin A, an antioxidant that helps promote cell turnover and keeps skin looking youthful.

Alcoholic drinks that are high in sugar are going to be worse for your skin than other beverages. This is because in addition to the visible effects of alcohol, your skin is going through the glycation process. Mixers, including tonic water and fruit juices, usually contain more sugar while dry spirits tend to have less sugar.

RS: OK, with that in mind how should we indulge this Valentine’s Day: chocolates or wine?
Dr. Schlessinger: If you want a glass of wine this Valentine’s Day, opt for red instead of white. Red wine has less fructose. There are also several health benefits to drinking red wine. It has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, as well as slow the progression of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, red wine can raise your good cholesterol and thin your blood, leading to better circulation.

As for candy, it’s best to stick to dark chocolate varieties with a high cocoa content that are low in sugar. The darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain. Studies show that dark chocolate also has some health benefits, including lowering the risk of heart disease and providing your body with powerful antioxidants.

Remember, when you indulge, moderation is important. A square or two of chocolate each day is ideal for most people. When it comes to wine, men should have no more than two 5-ounce glasses per day. For women, no more than one glass per day is recommended.

RS: If someone has to have candy this Valentine’s Day, what is the safest bet?
Dr. Schlessinger: Dark chocolate is probably the healthiest variety of candy, as long as it has lots of cocoa and less sugar. Look for dark chocolate with a 70% or higher cocoa content. Always check the label to make sure the candy doesn’t have hidden sugars, as well.

To speak with Dr. Schlessinger, contact media@realself.com. Learn more about skin care options at RealSelf.

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Elisabeth Kramer is former managing editor of RealSelf Trends.

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