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How To Target "Zombie Cells," The Main Culprit For Skin Aging

Jamie Schneider
Author:
October 17, 2023
Jamie Schneider
Former Senior Beauty & Lifestyle Editor
By Jamie Schneider
Former Senior Beauty & Lifestyle Editor
Jamie Schneider is the former Senior Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Image by Goodboy Picture Company / iStock
October 17, 2023
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Let's share some skin care horror stories, shall we? Sunbathing for sport and without sunscreen. Shudder. Exfoliating then forgetting to follow up with moisturizer. Chilling. Falling asleep without removing makeup. A nightmare! 

Granted, these situations are all pretty common—disturbing, yes, but they're not exactly urban legends. Recently, though, I've been hearing accounts of senescent cells (also called "zombie cells") whispered between beauty editors, and the apocalyptic way they take control of your skin barrier, create inflammation, and lead to accelerated aging. The spookiest tale of all. 

But this scary story isn't set in stone. Below, derms explain how to fight off the zombies. 

What are senescent cells?

"Senescent cells are cells that have stopped dividing and are no longer functioning properly," says board-certified dermatologist Julie Russak, M.D., FAAD. They're technically still alive—they resist cell death, so they don't naturally shed—hence why they're called "zombie cells." 

"Senescent cells are thought to accumulate with age," adds board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, M.D., FAAD, and they can be found all over the body (not just in the skin). They have been linked to a variety of age-related diseases, but for the purposes of this article, we'll just stick to skin aging. 

What do they do?

There's a reason beauty fans flock to ingredients that promote cellular renewal: Young, spry cells reflect more light and generally perform better. So imagine a buildup of zombie cells living rent-free in your skin—your complexion might appear dull, dry, and creepy1

"Since senescent cells have reduced cellular renewal, it can lead to a reduction in collagen and elastin as well as a weaker skin barrier," explains Garshick. "Together these changes can lead to dryness, fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness of the skin." 

What's more, "Senescent cells secrete pro-aging factors that can drive healthy neighboring cells to age faster and become senescent as well," says Russak. Just like the living dead, these zombies corrupt the healthy cells around them, turning them into zombie cells, too. Spooky, no? 

And as more and more cells become senescent, the skin ages even faster. "The accumulation of senescent cells in the skin leads to reduced production of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid, decreased epidermal thickness, compromised barrier function, and decreased elasticity and strength," Russak adds. 

What causes them? 

Zombie cells appear during the natural course of aging, but like many other skin aging woes, a few factors can accelerate the process: 

  • UV exposure: "UV exposure from the sun is the main reason we see substantial numbers of senescent cells in our skin," says Russak. 
  • Environmental aggressors: In addition to UV exposure, free radicals from pollution, smoking, pollution, and other environmental aggressors can lead to oxidative stress and DNA damage. "As this damage accumulates, cells enter a state of dysfunction called senescence," says Russak. 
  • Inflammation: Inflammation is at the root of pretty much every skin concern, including senescence. And according to Russak, those with chronic inflammatory skin conditions (think rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis) are at a greater risk of accumulating zombie cells. 

How to get rid of zombie cells 

Defend against the zombies, derms say, and you can counteract skin aging and improve overall skin health. 

However! "Not all senescent cells are harmful 'zombie' cells that should be eliminated to prevent age-related diseases," says Russak. See, research shows that some senescent cells can actually help heal damaged tissues2. "Senescent cells can be beneficial in the short term by adjusting the plasticity of neighboring cells, but their prolonged presence can be deleterious," Russak explains further. "Therefore, it is important to develop strategies to eliminate senescent cells selectively." 

In terms of selecting specific zombies to destroy, the science isn't quite there yet. We do have some "senolytic drugs3" that can target zombie cells as a whole, but again, clearing them all may not be the best approach. 

In the meantime, we can do our best to clear a buildup of these zombie cells and reduce the risk of senescence in the first place. Here, a few strategies: 

1.

Protect from oxidative stress

Since oxidative stress can cause those zombie cells to pile up, shielding your skin from free radical damage may prevent the process. Protect the skin from environmental aggressors (UV rays, smoke, pollution, etc.) by wearing sunscreen, cleansing your skin daily, and ingesting and applying antioxidants

Russak also recommends lifestyle changes to fend off free radicals and reduce the risk of senescence, "such as avoiding excessive sun exposure, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising regularly," she says. 

2.

Use targeted antioxidants 

In addition to classic antioxidants that shield your skin from environmental damage (vitamin C, vitamin E, and the like), Russak mentions a few targeted compounds that may have senolytic effects4—namely, fisetin and quercetin. 

"These compounds have been shown to selectively eliminate senescent cells in vitro and in vivo. However, more research is needed to determine their efficacy and safety in humans," she explains. The good news is that it's never a bad idea to consume and apply more antioxidants, and quercetin-infused skin care products are specifically becoming more popular as of late. 

You can read more about ingesting the phytonutrient here, then snag this quercetin-infused F-Balm Electrolyte Waterfacial from Drunk Elephant. 

3.

Promote cell turnover 

Finally, to ensure your skin cells perform at their best, eliminate dead skin cells so younger, healthier cells have their space to shine. "Ingredients that help to regulate cellular renewal, such as retinoids, and those that help to eliminate dead skin cells, such as exfoliating acids, can be helpful for zombie cells," notes Garshick. 

They might not clear the zombie cells in particular (again, they're technically still alive, so they won't shed), but paving the way for new, healthy cells can make your skin more resilient to the living dead, so to speak.

See here for our favorite retinol serums and face exfoliators on the market. 

The takeaway 

Zombie cells are not urban legends—they do exist, but they're not all bad! It's similar to how you want a balance of healthy bacteria to support your skin microbiome. Senescent cells can certainly lead to skin aging, but clearing them completely isn't the best move. Create an equilibrium with the derm-backed tips above, and those healthy and zombie cells can exist in harmony. A happy ending to the haunted tale.

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