iron causes wrinkled skin

Iron: is there anything bad that it can’t do?

Now there’s evidence that iron is involved in the wrinkles in skin that come with age. Since iron is a highly reactive metal and capable of causing damage, it’s not surprising that it also damages skin, along with the liver, brain, muscle, kidneys, and other organs.

Aging means more iron in skin

A group of researchers looked at a group of 12 women, all Caucasian, 6 of them pre-menopausal, average age 42, 6 of them post-menopausal, average age 59.(1) They took skin biopsies, and measured ferritin (iron) and antioxidant capacity in the skin.

In the post-menopausal women, ferritin levels were 42% higher than in the pre-menopausal women. Antioxidant capacity was 45% lower in the post-menopausal women. Very straightforward.

After menopause, women no longer lose large amounts of iron through menstrual blood flow. The iron then begins to build up in their bodies until, after a couple decades or so, iron levels begin to approach that of men.

Their rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes also rise.

Their skin becomes more wrinkled. Oxidative damage is a prime cause of skin wrinkling. This study shows that the buildup of iron in the women’s bodies also includes the skin. Antioxidant capacity was lower probably precisely because iron was higher. The antioxidant system becomes overwhelmed and a state of oxidative stress in the skin comes into being.

Damage including wrinkles is the result.

Importantly for this study, the measure of iron was ferritin, not free iron. The body strives to keep free iron under control by locking it down in the ferritin molecule, as free iron is a dangerous reactant. In this case, the fact that ferritin went up shows the association between it and free iron: the more feritin, the more free iron. They are closely correlated in otherwise healthy people.

The addition of UV radiation from the sun to iron-loaded skin causes even more oxidative damage.

What can be done to avoid skin damage from iron

A review of iron and skin aging, Iron and Iron Chelators: A Review on Potential Effects on Skin Aging, draws some inferences about what can be done to avoid skin damage.(2)

…we propose that iron chelators and/or iron deprivation might play a significant role in the prevention of aging- associated diseases and conditions, in particular in the skin, and increase quality of life. Controlled iron deprivation might be achieved by regular blood donation in which case the quality of life of both the donor and the recipient is improved. Increasing the frequency of blood donation may thus significantly contribute to both individual and social wellbeing. Furthermore, we propose the skin as an accessible model for the study of aging and the effects of iron / iron deprivation on the aging mechanisms. Finally, we suggest that the development of topical iron chelators might represent a novel and simple approach to prevent skin aging, when such prevention has proven an important factor in increasing an aging populations’ quality of life.

Blood donation and iron chelation are two proven strategies for keeping iron levels in the low normal range.

As for topical chelators, kojic acid has been suggested as a possibility.(3) This substance potently protects skin against radiation damage, and it’s used in a number of skin care formulas, and even in skin-lightening soap.

Anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid, have also been suggested. They’re found abundantly in berries, but I don’t know whether anyone topically applies them, though it’s been done with rats.(4)

Besides removal of iron, another way to prevent skin aging is to increase its antioxidant capacity. Resveratrol does this in skin by increasing the expression of the Nrf2 element, with subsequent increases in glutathione and in antioxidant enzymes.(5)

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  1. Tuba says:

    I wonder which UV radiation, A or B? I would think A but it would be like researchers not to distinguish.

  2. Philomathean says:

    So the question is:

    Should one donate blood, two, or, three, times per year?

  3. Tuba says:

    Well… you need a starting point. Until today I had not given blood for 39 years… (I had reason. My last donation was under emergency conditions long ago, far away…) Two weeks ago my iron level was 100, not bad, on the cusp, could be lower or could be ignored for a while. Hemoblogin was almost 16 and I live at sea level. So I gave today, and penciled in another donation in June. That should work… and this donation went much better than the last. Now if I can just find a damned doctor for a prescription to lower estradiol….

    • P. D. Mangan says:

      Tuba, yes, that would do a lot. As for lowering estradiol, the doc who prescribed my aromatase inhibitor is an “integrative medicine” guy, i.e. the type who’s looked down on by the other doctors. Might be worthwhile finding a doc who bills himself that way. The other option is an anti-aging clinic, but those run on the expensive side.

  4. daniel says:

    Astaxantin, a beta-carotene, protects from sun damage and is an anti-oxidant so might do something with iron

  5. sabril says:

    In terms of amount of wrinkling, I’ve not noticed much of a difference between males and females in the 35-40 age range. If Iron played an important role, would you not expect males to look significantly more wrinkled?

    • P. D. Mangan says:

      Good point, I actually looked that one up, and it appears that some evidence is in favor of women getting more wrinkles than men. At this point probably all we can say is that other factors are also involved.

  6. sabril says:

    “Good point, I actually looked that one up, and it appears that some evidence is in favor of women getting more wrinkles than men. At this point probably all we can say is that other factors are also involved.”

    Thanks. I think we can say a bit more than that, which is that iron is not one of the “low hanging fruits” of health and fitness.

    To illustrate this with a counter-example, it’s very clear that quitting smoking is such a low-hanging fruit. The evidence is pretty much overwhelming that smoking increases your chances of getting various bad diseases. Not only that, you don’t even need to do a study to observe that the physical appearance of a smoker is damaged by all the smoking.

    I think there’s value in dividing up health and fitness strategies into categories. First there’s stuff which clearly is helpful: Regular exercise; maintaining a healthy weight; not smoking; eating plenty of fruits and vegetables; and moderating your consumption of alcohol.

    Then there’s the stuff which is probably helpful but easy to do and is unlikely to hurt you: Drinking green tea; taking vitamin D supplements; getting out in the sun now and then.

    Last is the pie-in-the-sky stuff. I’m not sure if iron falls into this category or the second category, but I think it’s something that’s not worth bothering with unless you really don’t mind giving blood regularly etc.

    • P. D. Mangan says:

      I disagree about the low-hanging fruit. Iron is a very low-hanging fruit. At the age of around 45, men have something like 10 times the rate of heart attack and many times the rate of cancer as women. Men have higher rates of diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Cancer and heart disease rates increase radically with aging in both sexes. Aspirin dramatically lowers cancer risk. Blood donation radically lowers risk of heart attack. In all these cases and many more, iron plays a role, in some of them, a major role.

      I wouldn’t have spent so much time writing about iron if I thought it were relatively unimportant. It’s not. It’s huge.

      Edit: I came across the reference for heart attacks, so I need to correct myself. The maximal differential between men and women in heart attack rates occurs at age 45, when men have a 4-fold higher rate. This is also the age of maximum difference in ferritin levels between men and women, also about 4-fold.

      • Herman Rutner, M.S. says:

        True, iron overload as measured by stored body ferritin is a major disease factor well discussed in my copy of the book by RB Lauffer, Iron and Your Heart….discussing risks of excess iron, with focus on ferritin (1983 PB out of print, buy used only). The chart on p 150 shows graphs of iron acumulation from age 10 to 80, rising sharply for males from 20 to 100 ng/ml at 30 y, rising less sharply to age 80 to near 200 ng/ml or toxic level (equal to 2000 mg ferritin body stores). So called liver spots in elderly meat eaters often are iron deposits as hemosiderin or aggregated ferritin. Females stay below 40 ng/ml, the upper limit of safe ferritin, until about 45y, thereafter their ferritin rises gradually to over 130 at age 80. The medically accepted normal ferritin is 30 to about 200ng/ml, clearly biased by including iron over loaded “sick” normals. Harvard academic Lauffer shows actual self monitored blood transfusion data starting at 88 ng/ml, declining to 59, 33, and 11 after 3 blood transfusions over 6 week intervals (p 246).
        Other factors may be responsible in skin wrinkling such as the highly destructive SDS or SLS and related surfactants found in most liquid soaps, shampoos (cause of hair loss by root destruction?) and even toothpastes (gum destruction and loss especially in seniors?)…all leaching protecive lipids and irreversibly denaturing or damaging the underlying protein epidermis that is gradually replaced with healthy lower skin layers, more slowly restored in older than in younger persons.

        • P. D. Mangan says:

          Interesting, and that reminds me, that after I stopped using soap on my face, my adult acne went away and my face has never looked clearer and better. Clearly, soap was damaging the skin on my face.

      • sabril says:

        I did a Google search for ‘male versus female cancer rates by age’ and found the following:

        At least in the UK, it seems that female rates are slightly higher than male rates until about age 60.

        As for heart disease, it occurs to me that there are likely to be other factors in play. One interesting observation is that (1) among men, there is a significant correlation between baldness and heart disease; and (2) men are much more prone to baldness than women. This raises the question of whether it’s the same underlying factor which make men more likely to go bald and more likely to have heart problems.

        • posthasty says:

          “One interesting observation is that (1) among men, there is a significant correlation between baldness and heart disease; and (2) men are much more prone to baldness than women. This raises the question of whether it’s the same underlying factor which make men more likely to go bald and more likely to have heart problems.”

          My conjecture:

          Metabolic Syndrome in men is the link between heart disease and male pattern baldness. MPB is not only correlated with testosterone/DHT, but also high insulin levels and metabolic syndrome. I read a study that in men with high insulin levels, the cells in their scalps produce higher levels of DHT locally. The circulating levels of dihydrotestosterone (derived from T) are less inflammatory and damaging than DHT generated locally. This explains why you see big, brawny high T men with perfect hair and, on the other extreme, scrawny balding guys.

          So what are the causes of insulin resistance – diet, NAFLD (also typically caused by diet), obesity, iron levels. Genes probably play a role in insulin sensitivity too.

          Polycystic Ovary Syndrome in women is caused by insulin resistance, which drives up androgen levels. Common symptoms of PCOS are male pattern baldness and hirsutism (unwanted body hair growth). However, young female athletes and women in the fitness industry commonly abuse anabolic steroids or T without a lot of visible male pattern baldness or body hair growth (yes, I know there are extreme examples of masculinized female body builders, but I’m not talking about them). So how can these women abuse steroids but yet not suffer from the same level of hirsutism and MPB as PCOS women? I think the difference is insulin levels.

  7. Posthasty says:

    I used all of the recent iron articles here to convince my recalcitrant Father to finally have his ferritin tested; it was 202. He donated blood for the first time last week. So thanks for that. Oddly, before I began donating years ago, my ferritin was 205. And I eat A LOT more red meat than he does, which leads me to suspect genes play a large role in iron accumulation (hereditary hemochromatosis notwithstanding).

  8. Joshua says:

    All of these revelations about iron levels are starting to make me think that the vegetarian/vegan crowd might end up having the last laugh. For years, us meat-eaters/Paleo/primal types poo-pah’ed the idea that eating meat, esp. red meat, is bad for health. All of the epidemiological studies that seemed to implicate red meat with worse health outcomes could be explained away fairly easily by pointing out the “healthy user bias”. (Which, to be sure, might still play something of a role, but I no longer think it’s the whole story.) Iron levels, it seems, may be the missing piece of the puzzle. So while vegetarians’ reasoning was wrong (saturated and animal fat is “bad”), their end conclusion — that avoiding lots of meat is best for health — might still up end being the right one.

    Iron may also explain the healthfulness of the “Mediterranean Diet”. This diet involves lots of whole grains (which have phytates that will chelate iron), red wine (ditto), and relatively little red meat.

    I think it entirely possible that in a decade or so, it may be generally recognized that iron reduction is the most significant diet-related finding of the past several decades.

    • P. D. Mangan says:

      I agree with you, Joshua. While veganism isn’t optimal to say the least, it could be that an unbridled paleo diet with lots of red meat isn’t either. However, iron lurks in a lot of places, like iron-fortified flour, so it could be that (some) vegans/vegetarians don’t avoid it, although there was a study that showed vegetarians had both lower iron levels and better insulin sensitivity.

      The epidemiological studies might not have found much because of noise, which I believe also means that the effects of meat may be too small to detect. But in the case of someone who’s doing everything else right health-wise, then maybe we would see the effects.

  9. royal jelly says:

    That is very cool that the expensive cuceramin acts as a chelator. A bonus anti-aging effect!

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