We all like the idea of aging gracefully, but no one wants to look 70 when they're 50. That's why the state of your skin is so important, because it can be a dead giveaway when it comes to your age.

But there's good news when it comes to aging skin. Researchers at the University of Sheffield in Britain say they have uncovered the secret to the fountain of youth: the awakening of "sleeping" stem cells in the skin.

The research -– conducted in collaboration with The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G) and published in Nature Scientific Reports -– could pave the way for the development of better treatments to fight wrinkles and perhaps even skin cancer.

(Full disclosure: Procter & Gamble manufactures skin care products under the brand name Olay.)

Researchers say they made the discovery after developing a computer model of human skin biology that captured how the outer layers of the skin are developed and maintained over time. The virtual skin was then used to test various popular theories of how skin cells function to regenerate our skin over a three-year period. In the end, though, only one theory allowed the virtual skin to fully generate after three years.

"The theory which seems to fit best says that skin has a population of ‘sleeping’ stem cells, which sit in the lowest layer of the skin but don’t constantly divide to make new cells,” said Dr. Xinshan Li, one of the lead researchers, in a press release. “However, these sleeping cells can be called into action if the skin is damaged, or if the numbers of other types of more mature skin cells decrease, ensuring that the skin can be constantly regenerated under all conditions."

The model showed that we gradually lose these sleeping stem cells over time -– which would explain why our ability to regenerate our skin diminishes as we age.

"Each time we wake up these cells, to heal a wound or replenish stocks of other cells, a few of them don’t go back into sleep mode, so the population slowly reduces," Li said in a press release. "This explains why older skin is slower to heal and in part why our skin changes as we age. By understanding this mechanism better, it might be possible to find ways to combat the effects of aging on our skin."

The ability to follow virtual skin models over decades may be especially key to skin cancer research. Environmental damage caused by factors such as sun exposure can cause sleeping cells to harbor the mutations that cause skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, a very aggressive type of skin cancer.

"The stem cells can harbor mutations over years, but with no effect if they’re still in sleep mode," Li said in a press release. “However, when they start to divide to heal a wound for example, this could trigger the cancer. If it’s possible to study this phenomenon over long periods of time it may be possible to find ways to prevent the activation of mutated cells and so reduce the risk of developing the disease."

In recent years, there have been many studies designed to find ways to slow skin aging. One recent study out of Australia found that people who applied a daily dollop of sunscreen had fewer wrinkles on their skin than those who didn't use sunscreen regularly.

What do you use on your skin? Let us know in comments.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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  • Cantaloupe

    Cantaloupe is not only nutritious -- it can actually <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-murdock/a-recipe-for-longevity_b_205355.html" target="_hplink">protect the skin against sunburn</a> and can also <a href="http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/21246089/ns/today-today_health/t/fight-arthritis-these-foods/#.T-lB4CtYvIY" target="_hplink">reduce inflammation</a>, thanks to the vitamin C found in the melon.

  • Pomegranate

    Pomegranate gives natural <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-murdock/a-recipe-for-longevity_b_205355.html" target="_hplink"> protection from the sun</a>. In addition, the powerful fruit can help lower "bad" cholesterol.

  • Tomatoes

    Before you head out into the sun this summer, slather on the SPF 30 and cook up some juicy tomatoes! Packed with the antioxidant <a href="http://voices.yahoo.com/boost-inner-sun-protection-factor-spf-10293957.html" target="_hplink">lycopene</a>, consuming cooked tomatoes may <a href="http://www.oprah.com/style/Improve-Your-Skin-with-These-Foods_1" target="_hplink">protect your skin from sunburn</a>.

  • Kiwi

    Kiwis, blueberries and sweet potatoes are all loaded with vitamins C and E, which can help <a href="http://www.oprah.com/style/Improve-Your-Skin-with-These-Foods_1/3" target="_hplink">protect against sun damage</a>. One study found that those with diets with more vitamin C tended to see less wrinkles and dry skin, <em>O Magazine</em> reports.

  • Green Tea

    Sipping <a href="http://voices.yahoo.com/6-ways-soothe-sunburn-11283400.html?cat=5" target="_hplink">green tea</a> -- or even applying it to your skin -- could have great skin care benefits. The polyphenols it contains have been shown to protect the skin from harmful UV rays, according to a study in <em><a href="http://jn.nutrition.org/content/141/6/1202.abstract" target="_hplink">The Journal of Nutrition</a></em>.

  • Spinach

    Spinach may have helped Popeye grow muscles, but it can also help your skin. The leafy green contains lutein (also found in kale) which helps with skin hydration, according to <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/skin-and-beauty/anti-aging-diet-for-skin.aspx" target="_hplink">Everyday Health</a>. Maybe that's why we never saw a wrinkle on the sailor man!

  • Buckwheat

    Before you pay for expensive botox treatments, <em><a href="a href="http://www.glamour.com/beauty/2009/01/eat-your-way-to-better-skin#slide=3" target="_hplink"" target="_hplink">Glamour </em>suggests giving buckwheat a try</a>. This seed contains rutin, which aids collagen and elasticity in the skin.

  • Wheat Germ

    Rich in zinc, consuming wheat germ may aid in the making of new skin cells, according to <a href="http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/anti-aging-foods-cheat-sheet?page=3#copy" target="_hplink">Dr. Oz</a>. Wheat germ may also act as an anti-inflammatory, the good doctor found.