Is the “Vegan Face” Really a Thing?

Unfortunately, I’ve come across several forum posts and articles that suggest the vegan diet causes wrinkles and premature aging. This supposed phenomenon has been dubbed the vegan face.

To start with, no, the vegan diet does not cause wrinkles. No matter what diet you’re on, there are things you can do or fail to do that can hasten the onset of wrinkles—most of which have nothing to do with what you eat.

You’ll be glad to hear that the vegan diet actually offers many benefits in the way of helping you PREVENT early skin aging, and we’ll touch on that in a future article.

If you doubt the power of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, check out the breathtaking Annette Larkins, a raw vegan who’s gained notoriety for her age-defying diet and lifestyle. She’s in her mid 70’s and often gets mistaken for 30+ years younger.


Anyway, so where does the pervasive myth (that the vegan diet causes wrinkles) come from? And why won’t it die already?

Well, to answer that question we’ll first have to cover a few basics regarding what it is that causes wrinkles, in general. Then we’ll go over why it may be that people often erroneously assume the vegan diet leads to wrinkle formation.

So, What Is It That Causes Wrinkles?

Below is a brief list of the changes the skin undergoes resulting in wrinkle formation.

The Aging Process Itself

My favorite title so far when encountering articles with vegan-wrinkle scaremongering is “Look what 10 years on a vegan diet did to my skin!” Uh, yeah you got 10 years older. After age 20 or so, you’ll see a noticeable decrease in elasticity for every decade of life thereafter. Not always dramatic, but noticeable.

Why exactly? Human skin is an organ, and like any other organ, it undergoes clearly distinguishable changes throughout the aging process. For starters, here are a few of the changes that take place:1-2

  • Decreased cell replacement—our skin undergoes a continual process of renovation wherein old cells die off as new cells replace them. So, if you make less new skin cells over time, you’ll end up with a net loss—i.e. skin thickness, wrinkles and so on.
  • Compromised barrier function—one of the main functions of the skin is that it serves as a barrier to protect against the environment.
  • Compromised mechanical protection
  • Delayed wound healing and immune responses
  • Impaired thermoregulation—another important function of the skin is that it maintains body temperature.
  • Decreased sebum production—sebum is the natural oils secreted from the skin that nourish it, keep it moist, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

The mechanism most commonly linked to age is oxidative damage. But, as you’ll see below there are many ways in which wrinkles become more prevalent with age. As far as specific bodily processes go, you could consider oxidative stress to be the common denominator when it comes to aging skin. Age is merely a proxy for the time you’ve had to accumulate oxidative stress in its many forms.

This is a good place to stop and talk about the two different types of skin aging.

Intrinsic Aging

The aging that takes place naturally with the passage of time. It happens behind the scenes, and there’s not much you can do about it. Also, you don’t need to smoke or spend one too many hours under the sun to experience this type of aging.

  • Genetics—progressive shortening of telomeres. Telomeres are those long thingies at the ends of our chromosomes, that undergo a base-pair loss each time the DNA is replicated.
  • Hormones
  • Metabolic substances

Because it’s a genetic thing, the age of onset of noticeable signs of intrinsic aging depends on the genetic hand one has been dealt.

Characteristics of Intrinsically Aged Skin:3
  • Appearance of fine lines.
  • Loss of underlying facial fat leading to hollow eye sockets and cheeks.*
  • Decreased dermal collagen
  • A thin, transparent look to the skin.

*While you do have some degree of control over facial fat, it is considered intrinsic because the body will store less fat in this area over time. While we control total fat stores (by how much we eat/burn), the pattern of fat storage is subject to genes and changes over time with aging. But, it is in our control in the sense that, no matter how good someone’s genes are, if they were to lose too much fat—think contest prep physique athletes/bodybuilders—then they’ll end up looking much older.

Extrinsic Aging

This, of course, would be changes taking place due to environmental stimuli.

  • UV radiation
  • DNA alterations
  • Infectious agents

Characteristics of Extrinsically Aged Skin
  • Premature wrinkles
  • Rough skin textures
  • Atrophy of the skin
  • Looseness, or laxity
  • Blotchiness and other pigmentary changes
  • Excessive dryness

So, this is the stuff you can avoid. And, it’s what we’ll be primarily focused on.

The two processes are similar, and you might say that the extrinsic superimpose on the intrinsic processes.

Why The Above Distinction?

Because one thing that’s confusing is the fact that you’ll often hear people say things like, “well my friend stays in the sun all the time, and eats what she wants. Even smokes. She’s in her 30’s and she has great skin.”

The problem with this way of thinking is that it’s equivalent to saying, “my friend smokes and doesn’t have lung cancer. So smoking must be perfectly healthy.”

Consider the following:

  • My great grandmother had terrible dietary habits and lived to 102. Had she eaten healthy her whole life, who knows, she may have lived to 114.
  • My mom is about 4 years younger than my dad and has been routinely mistaken for his daughter. Neither has significantly different lifestyle habits.
  • Because of their good genes, Jennifer Lopez and John Stamos may not wrinkle significantly until their mid 40’s, but if they had impeccable habits, it could be their mid 50’s before they start to really show their age. If you think that’s unrealistic, consider that not long ago, a guy made the news for getting carded at a liquor store. He was 55…

You get the idea…

Keep in mind this is just a helpful distinction. The above two processes (intrinsic and extrinsic) often overlap, because the underlying mechanism is the same: oxidative stress. Which reminds me: oxidative stress is where the diet does come into play in all of this. According to experts, it’s arguably the single biggest contributor to skin aging.5

Intrinsic Aging:

Loss of Dermal Collagen and Elastin

Basically, what happens is that when you age, your skin is more readily wrinkled as dermal collagen thins and becomes more sparse.6

This happens along with a decrease in the number of elastic fibers in the dermis.7

Loss of Facial Fat

Collagen and elastin may get all the positive attention, but facial fat is as responsible as anything for a youthful appearance.8-11

In fact, there are numerous fat wasting disorders (e.g. those suffered by people with HIV) that make people prematurely age.

Luckily, this you do have some control over. Your facial fat will thin out with age, but it’s much more within your control compared to collagen and elastin. So, if you find that you have thin skin then you may just need to put on little weight.

Extrinsic Aging

Chronic Sun Exposure

This is a huge one. According to Kosmadaki MG and Gilchrest BA, UV radiation is the most important extrinsic factor of skin aging.

Why, exactly? The sun damages DNA. And there’s also some overlap with intrinsic skin aging in that sun damage is believed to shorten telomeres. So, it speeds up the aging process in that sense.12

But, the effects of chronic sun exposure are a bit different from the natural effects of aging. With skin exposed to UV radiation, the normal elastic fibers are replaced by a thick, interwoven mat of elastic-like material, that gives photoaged skin its characteristic hyper-wrinkled look.7

There are UVA and UVB rays that come into play. For the most part, it’s the UVB rays that induce DNA damage, but the UVA radiation also causes damage to some degree.13,14

The type of sun damage also matters. Infrequent short/acute bouts of severe UV damage—the kind that results in sunburn—doesn’t actually cause a ton of wrinkles. Wrinkles are more associated with chronic exposure to the sun.

If you spend a lot of time out in the sun without sunblock, you probably won’t notice the effects early on (except that due to dryness which I cover below), but the damage will accumulate and you’ll start to get a wrinkle or two every year as a birthday present by your late 20’s. Of course, it varies.

So, if I told you that I’ve always spent the majority of my time indoors, but went on a vacation here and there as a child where I got flash baked for three days, then you probably wouldn’t expect to see too much premature wrinkle formation.

However, if I said I rarely ever burn, but that’s because I stay out in the sun and I’ve built up a good base tan over the years that protects my skin from damage, then you should expect to see early wrinkle formation. I should note that there’s a ton of individual variability here.

Drying of the Skin

Another surface level factor that you have a relatively good amount of control over. Your skin will dry out with age, but ensuring hydration and using moisturizers can go a long way in helping you keep skin dryness from making you look prematurely old.

Why does skin dry out more with age? If you recall the sebum stuff I was talking about—it’s the natural oils your skin secretes to keep itself nice and moisturized. Well, you put out less of this stuff with age as sebaceous gland activity decreases. So, as you age you have a decrease in skin lipids and overall barrier function that leads to dryness and wrinkles.15

So, Where Does This Wrinkle Rumor Come From?

Who started it?!?!

I have a few theories of my own…

Vegans Are Lean

We as a population have the lowest BMI.16

And as saw above, being super lean comes with a price: thin skin and wrinkles.

I knew a physique competitor who said she loved how her abs looked at super low body fat, but her face really took a hit at that level of leanness.

It can vary, but usually 10 to 15% bodyfat for guys and low to mid 20’s for gals is the sweet spot for facial fat. If you go too high your face will lose definition, but if you get too low the texture and wrinkles start to take over.

Vegans Are Outdoorsy?

I’m not saying all vegans are hippies, but the reputation of the vegan lifestyle didn’t come out of nowhere.

Let’s face it, the super fit, active outdoor types are not exactly underrepresented in this population.

The Collagen Myth

The idea that the vegan diet may lead to wrinkles may have, in part, come from the popular idea that in order for your body to make collagen, you must eat animal collagen. One common question I come across (which I should do a post answering) is where vegans get their collagen from.

The question may sound reasonable at first, but it’s really quite absurd once you give it some thought. Asking where vegans get their collagen from is like asking where vegans get their hair from. You don’t need to eat animal fur if you want to grow hair and you don’t need to eat collagen in order to make it.

Common Nutrient Deficiencies

Unfortunately, vegans do have the tendency to neglect certain key nutrients, many of which are needed for collagen production. There was a time when vegans were surfacing on the internet with angular cheilitis—the sores you get at the corners of your mouth. A manifestation of B vitamin deficiency. Well, it just so happens that B vitamins are used in the production of collagen.

One Final Thought: The Science Just Isn’t There

Finally, and certainly not least: there is no known biological mechanism that could account for a positive association between wrinkles and a well-planned vegan diet. Facial fat is a tentative link to diet I suppose but has everything to do with body fat status and calorie balance.

And nutrient deficiencies are not unique to any one diet. It’s up to you to ensure you get sufficient nutrition no matter what diet you choose to follow. I could jump on the monstrosity we call the Atkins diet, but if I get vitamin C deficiency, that’s on me. Not Dr. Atkins.

Anyway, that wraps it up for now.

Till next time.


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