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Sugar's Aging Effects on Skin

By Michelle Fisk ; Updated July 18, 2017

Sugar not only makes your pants feel a little snugger, it also causes your skin to look and feel older than it is. As you metabolize sugar, it initiates an inflammatory process that harms skin cells and turns off your natural defense against skin damage. You don’t have to cut out all sugar to achieve healthy skin -- just reduce your consumption of added sugars found in processed and junk food such as white bread, candy and ice cream and opt for complex carbohydrates found in whole grains and brown rice.

Sugar's Damaging Effect

The sugar you eat travels through your bloodstream and attaches to proteins through a process called glycation. These attachments form new molecules known as advanced glycation end products. Over time, the end products accumulate and destroy surrounding proteins. Collagen is the most common protein in your body and, coupled with the protein elastin, it keeps skin firm and supple. Damaged collagen and elastin become rigid and brittle, causing skin to thin, discolor, and develop rashes and infection.

New Skin Cells

Your skin is composed of an outer layer, or epidermis, and the layer underneath, or dermis. The dermis is made up of fibers, elastin, glycoproteins and proteins, or collagen.The dermis manufactures new cells, which replace old cells and provide support to the epidermis. Young, healthy skin requires a balance between making new cells and shedding old ones. Glycated collagen can't regenerate as effectively, causing your skin to sag and wrinkle.

Effects of Insulin Resistance

When you eat sugar, your body releases insulin, which helps store sugar in your cells for later use. The advanced glycation end products from a diet chronically high in sugar result in damage to your cells and inflammation. Eventually, you can develop insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. According to the Cleveland Clinic, hallmark signs of insulin resistance include dark patches on your underarms and the back of your neck and skin tags, especially on your neck.


Your body produces free radicals when you're exposed to internal factors, such as metabolizing food, and external factors, such as sunlight, pollution and cigarette smoke. Free radicals damage your cells, including skin cells. Advanced glycation end products make your skin cells more susceptible to the effects of free radicals and cause sagging, wrinkled, less radiant skin, according to the Kaiser Foundation. Sun exposure is particularly damaging to your skin because it increases the release of enzymes that destroy your collagen and promote free radical activity.

Protecting Your Skin

You’ll be hard-pressed to completely eliminate sugar from your diet because it occurs naturally in fruits, whole grains and vegetables. Choose healthier options by avoiding refined carbohydrates, such as white rice and pasta, packaged snacks, soda and fruit juice, which spike insulin levels. Opt for complex carbohydrates, including whole grains and vegetables, which don't spike insulin levels and contain fiber to control blood sugar. To stave off the effects of free radicals on your skin, eat antioxidant-rich foods, like blueberries. The Kaiser Foundation also suggests vitamin C, garlic, cumin and green tea -- foods that prevent glycation.

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