Can you meditate wrinkles away? This may seem like wishful thinking – another fad dreamt up on Planet Beauty – yet the influence the mind has not only on how we feel, but on how we actually look is fast gaining credence in dermatology. Mindfulness meditation, a practice favoured by stressed executives (not to mention MPs and peers – a reputed 70 enrolled in courses this year) wishing to avoid heart disease, kick addictions or shift weight is becoming something of a mot de jour in skin clinics too. The idea that meditation is set to be the new Botox may not be so far-fetched.
With its roots in Buddhism, mindfulness meditation encourages “being in the moment” – the antithesis of a today’s multitasking, circuit overloading lifestyle. The wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating its success in combating stress and depression prompted the launch of an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness earlier this year, and Exeter University is undertaking research into its possible role in health, education and criminal justice policies. Plus, following a recommendation by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, the NHS is already offering mindfulness courses as treatment for a number of mental-health issues. With various studies showing up to a 50 per cent reduction in the risk of relapse into depression, for example, the potential for mindfulness to benefit us on other levels – including cosmetically – seems clear.
Emotional wellbeing glows through the skin, goes the “inner beauty” mantra – and science supports this. It could be said that skin is physiologically hardwired to register emotion, since the skin is intimately connected to the brain through its nervous system. Over recent years, a raft of clinical studies have identified the importance of the brain/skin connection when it comes to treating a wide range of skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis and acne. Combined with attitude-shifting techniques such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness meditation can trigger positive thinking that helps to put skin problems in perspective. In the UK, a study of people with psoriasis at the University of Manchester found that eight weeks of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy resulted in patients reporting reduced flare-ups and improved quality of life. Dr Anthony Bewley, consultant dermatologist at Barts Health Trust and co-chairman of Psychodermatology UK, believes that this psychodermatology approach can raise patients’ self-esteem and reduce demand for medication. “It’s not just the skin condition, but how you feel about it that needs addressing. If both aren’t dealt with concurrently, the problem proliferates.” Skin problems are upsetting, he points out, and stress may prolong them. The cycle needs to be broken.
It is beyond doubt that chronic stress is a “disease” that wrecks both health and looks. A few years back, consultant cosmetic surgeon Dr Rajiv Grover ran his own nine-year study into stress and ageing. By monitoring the faces of 118 women, he found that extreme stress during major life events, such as divorce, bereavement, job loss and illness, triggered spurts that aged them by up to 35 per cent – a decade’s worth of ageing in a single year. Worst hit was the mid-face – youthful beauty’s “focal point” – with fat losses from the cheeks likely to leave faces looking gaunt and hollow-eyed. A hyaluronic-acid filler, such as Restylane SubQ (whose manufacturers, Q-Med, sponsored the research) could lift and restore a youthful plumpness, Grover proposed.
But why is stress so toxic? After all, it sometimes takes one of life’s spikes to prod us into action. The answer is that constantly raised levels of “get up and go” hormones, such as cortisol, corrode health and systemically damage skin. Cortisol is catabolic, meaning it breaks down molecules to release energy, and so destroys collagen and elastin, the youth proteins integral to a flexible, firm and plump epidermis. Elevated levels can cause an increase in blood sugar, paving the way for a process known as glycation in which sugar molecules attach themselves to collagen, warping its smooth, springy bundles into weaker, cross‑linked strands. Advanced glycation results in tissue inflammation – thought to be the root of ills from wrinkles to age spots. In one telling Dutch study published last year, a panel was asked to estimate the age of more than 600 strangers from portrait shots – those perceived to be older had higher blood-sugar levels.
The collateral damage of chronic stress may also lead to depleted human growth and dehydroepiandrosterone hormones, both immune-enhancing “youth” factors that contribute to firm, smooth, healthy skin. Free-radical overload is then generated, which depletes the “master antioxidant” glutathione, leaving cells de-energised and damaged. Ultimately, stress impact shortens telomeres – buffers at the ends of chromosomes that protect DNA integrity. Skin cells are particularly susceptible to this shortening because of their high proliferation rate and exposure to oxidative stress. If their DNA coding is compromised, cell renewal slows or becomes faulty – a process linked to the formation of wrinkles and other imperfections.
Although it’s well-nigh impossible to eradicate stress from our lives, the right type of exercise and nutrition, as well as protective creams tailored to our skin type, go a long way to calm its effects. But could meditation be the missing link in a genuinely holistic anti-ageing skincare programme? Dermatologist Stefanie Williams certainly thinks so. “Anti-stress strategies are integral to a truly effective anti‑ageing programme,” she says. “If we want to keep looking younger for as long as possible, we simply can’t afford to ignore stress. It would be like shutting all the windows and leaving the front door wide open.”
True to her word, she has designed Future Proof Your Skin: The Stress Management Package (£147), which includes a meditation CD combining mindfulness with NLP to fast-track the brain into a meditative state. A hypnotic male voice gently but firmly guides you to a “fountain of youth” and invites you to bathe, while implanting positive suggestions deep into your subconscious. So far, so relaxing. Yet it’s the extraordinary backing track that insinuates most profoundly. Engineered by neuro-acoustic firm NeuroSonica, whose digital forte is matching soundwaves to brainwaves, it consists of a low-key hum that seems to vibrate through your entire body. This “sound massage” tunes your brain into frequencies that encourage skin cells to regenerate, Williams claims, and the effect is palpable. A few sessions with this and you’ll swear you feel your telomeres tingling. Trials at Williams’ European Dermatology London clinic showed decreased cortisol levels in patients’ saliva after just 20 minutes.
Make no mistake, this is certainly more profound than the usual anodyne daydreams spun out by self-help audios. You may even feel woozy at first, in which case Williams advises a run-in period of just two or three sessions a week. Once you’re acclimatised, 20 minutes daily leaves you relaxed and refreshed. Williams uses it herself to meditate instead of power-napping during her invariably hectic day, since she feels much more alert afterwards. Can meditation make your skincare more effective? To date there are no confirming clinical studies. But put it like this, suggests Williams: “It’s difficult to achieve real improvements if you ignore the fundamentals. You can’t expect a firming active like retinol, say, to work wonders if stress is eroding your collagen. That would be like getting treatment for sun damage, then leaving off the sunscreen.”
Meanwhile, back on the couch, 20 minutes of pure mindfulness does sound like the ideal opportunity to indulge in some somatic soothing. Multisensory creams designed to relax both skin and psyche while subduing inflammation are perfect accessories to constructive R&R. The pleasure principle is, of course, the undisputed cornerstone of luxury treatments, and when you consider that the very act of massaging on a cream induces skin to release endorphins – the body’s “happy hormones” – superficial skincare treatments reach a far deeper level. And a cream with a euphoric fragrance will only add potency to the stress‑melting therapy at your fingertips.
“Products that are a joy to use invariably deliver the best results,” asserts Geraldine Howard, founder of Aromatherapy Associates, whose silken Rose Infinity Serum (£110 for 50ml) exudes calming frankincense and uplifting neroli, while omega 6-rich safflower oil reduces inflammation. Howard also recommends a pre‑meditation massage, first breathing deeply and dropping the shoulders, then using the index fingers to perform rotary pressures around the clenched jaw hinges, where tension is often held. “This makes the face look lifted, more refreshed and eases that tight, drawn feeling,” she says.
Also worth dipping a finger into is Chantecaille’s Crème à la Rose de Mai (£175 for 50ml), which contains balancing pro‑biotic ingredients and niacinamide to soothe skin and help reduce dark spots. Turmeric, peppermint, apple, mallow and date are the natural anti‑inflammatory actives in Epionce’s MelanoLyte Pigment Perfecting Serum (£87.50), which dermatologist Dr Carl Thornfeldt prescribes at his Idaho clinic, where desert conditions not only stress and roughen skin, but make hyper-pigmentation a burning topic. The combined effects of these potent plant extracts help to block 22 of the pathways that contribute to age spots, whereas prescription-only hydroquinone only works on three, he claims. The serum’s fresh, lemon-balm scent is soothing therapy in itself.
Scientists at Yves Saint Laurent Beauté have concocted a sophisticated woody-floral aroma to complement the brand’s Or Rouge cream (£275 for 50ml) and oil (£165 for 30ml) for exceptionally dry skin. At its heart is the reassuring, honeyed-hay scent of saffron – the anti-inflammatory ingredient that protects over-worked stress receptors in the skin’s surface layers. Also excellent for parched and fatigued skin is Santa Monica Medi-Spa maven Nurse Jamie’s jasmine-laced EGF Platinum 7 Rejuvenating Facial Cream (£510 for 50ml), which contains collagen-repairing factors, plus gold and platinum to rebalance the skin’s jangled electrolytes. For a gently invigorating prep before a demanding event, both Valmont’s Prime Renewing Pack (£135 for 50ml) and Natura Bissé’s Diamond Ice-Lift (£123 for 100ml) visibly refresh, while marine-DNA extracts help to repair tissue. Or if skin is red, sore and sensitised by environmental stress, the Toléridine complex in Bioderma’s Sensibio Rich Cream (£14.30 for 40ml) soothes immediately and helps improve tolerance long-term.
A final thought. Experiments in biofeedback suggest that scowling actually increases stress via neurotransmission: our brain thinks we’re stressed because our muscles tell it so. Conversely, smiling releases endorphins. If meditation can help ease a furrowed brow, it must surely be the thinking woman’s ultimate anti-ageing therapy. Entering theta as we speak…