Woman touching her face with her left hand.

Understanding skin aging How does skin age and how should I care for it?

From around the age of 25 the first signs of aging start to become apparent on the surface of the skin. Fine lines appear first and wrinkles, a loss of volume and a loss of elasticity become noticeable over time.

Our skin ages for a variety of different reasons. Many of the causes of skin aging are entirely natural and cannot be altered. There are, however, several factors that can cause skin to age prematurely, and these can be influenced. A holistic approach to lifestyle and skincare can help to reduce the visible signs of skin aging and prevent premature skin aging.

Understanding the way that internal and external factors affect skin’s structure and function can help to inform choices about treatment and care.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS

What are the signs of skin aging?

There are three main signs of skin aging and each one effects facial skin in a different way:

Wrinkles

The first noticeable signs of skin aging are fine lines and wrinkles. Small, shallow wrinkles known as laughter lines or crow´s feet tend to become noticeable at the outer corners of the eyes. These may appear around the age of 30, but we all age differently and how we age depends on our genetics and lifestyle. These fine lines are followed by wrinkles on the forehead. At first these are only visible when our skin moves as we change our facial expressions and they are known as dynamic wrinkles. As we age further they become more prominent and evolve into permanent wrinkles that are visible even when our face is static. Frowning can cause vertical lines between the brows.

Loss of volume

It can be difficult to identify a loss of volume and facial contours. The first signs of a loss of volume in the lips tends to be when lipstick starts to bleed. A loss of facial volume tends to result in sagging skin, a flattening of the cheeks and the appearance of a “turkey neck”. It changes the overall appearance of the face which can look negative, sad or tired. The fold that develops between the nose and the mouth, known as the nasolabial fold, is also linked to sagging skin and a loss of volume.

Loss of elasticity and deep wrinkles

As our skin matures its structure weakens and it loses elasticity and firmness. Skin also becomes drier, appears more `crepey` and loses the radiance we associate with youthful skin. Again, because our skin is as individual as we are, these changes become visible at different ages but are most commonly experienced by those who are 50+.

Signs of aging: fine lines and wrinkles
Fine lines and wrinkles are usually the first visible sign of skin aging.
Signs of skin aging: sagging skin
Sagging skin is a sign of loss of volume.
Signs of skin aging on face: deeper wrinkles
As our skin loses elasticity it becomes less firm and deeper wrinkles form.
CAUSES & TRIGGERS

Skin ages due to a combination of factors, both internal and external. Understanding these factors helps us to care for skin as it ages, reduce the visible signs of skin aging and prevent premature skin aging.

How does the skin aging process work?

Skin aging takes place in every layer of the skin and shows itself on the surface.

Epidermal layers

A loss of hyaluronic acid content, slower cell turnover and reduction in sebum production on the skin’s surface makes roughness and dryness more likely. As this particular layer of the skin ages it becomes more sensitive to the sun’s rays. Skin is less efficient at healing itself, and a reduced immune function can lead to an increase in skin infections together with slower wound healing.

Dermal layers

From about the age of 25, collagen, one of skin’s building blocks, decreases by 1% each year. Together with a decline in functional elastin, this leads to dermal tissue disorganization. Skin structure is compromised and fine lines and wrinkles are more likely. As our skin matures, elasticity continues to reduce and deeper wrinkles form. The production of hyaluronic acid – plentiful in youthful skin – slows down, so skin cells are less effective at binding in water and skin is prone to dryness. It also becomes weaker and more prone to damage and broken capillaries. Reduced micro-circulation means a less efficient delivery of nutrition and oxygen to the surface, which leads to a decrease in the radiance enjoyed by youthful skin.

Subdermal layers

In the deeper layers, the most notable changes are the reduction in size and number of lipid-storing cells in the adipose layer. This results in sagging skin and a loss of volume and can lead to deep wrinkles and hollow temples and cheeks.

The skin aging process affects every layer: graphic
The skin aging process affects every layer of skin 1 Epidermal layers 2 Dermal layers 3 Subdermal layers

What are the internal causes of skin aging?

Some of the causes of skin aging are inevitable. Our biological age determines structural changes in the skin and the efficiency of cell functions. These slow down with each passing year.

Hormonal influences. Decreasing levels of estrogen (instruction giving hormones) result in reduced messaging between the cells.

A poorer blood supply to the skin means the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the skin’s surface is impeded. The radiance that is a feature of young skin fades, and skin becomes duller.

Genetics. Genetics play a key role in how skin ages. The phototype and skin type we are born with make a difference to how quickly signs of aging appear on skin’s surface. For example:

  • Fair or phototype I – II and/or sensitive skin is more prone to wrinkles at an earlier age than darker phototype V - VI
  • Phototype III can be prone to uneven skin tone, but wrinkles appear at a later age than for other phototypes

Find out more in How skin differs between the major ethnic groups.

Skin aging: young skin has the moisture and nutrients it needs
In young skin, strong connections between the layers allow moisture and nutrients to be delivered efficiently to the visible layers. (Schematic illustration)
Skin aging: systems slow down
Over time these connections and systems slow down. (Schematic illustration)

What are the external causes of skin aging?

The external factors affecting the speed with which the skin ages are all due to one process: oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress releases molecules called free radicals that consist of a single unpaired electron in an outer shell. Free radicals cause premature aging by damaging skin cell structures and breaking down skin components such as hyaluronic acid, collagen and functional elastin. Under normal circumstances, free radicals are caught and neutralized by antioxidants in the skin: molecules with the ability to absorb and stop them. However, over time, the skin’s ability to de-activate free radicals decreases. The result is damage to all components of the skin’s cells.

Oxidative stress is triggered and accelerated by a variety of lifestyle factors:

Sun

The sun’s rays are the primary external cause of skin aging via oxidative stress. Skin damage caused by the sun is known as photoaging and uneven pigmentation is often one of the first visible signs to appear. And it’s not just prolonged UV exposure that causes skin damage; everyday exposure effects skin too.

Pollution

Exposure to pollution, most commonly in cities, can trigger the release of skin damaging free radicals. Pollution also worsens the effects of sun exposure accelerating oxidative stress.

Smoking

The chemicals and nicotine contained in cigarettes are responsible for an upsurge in the number of free radicals in the skin. Like pollution, they intensify the effects of sun exposure leading to oxidative stress.

Signs of aging: hyperpigmentation
Uneven pigmentation is one of the first signs of skin aging
Pollution can speed up skin aging
Pollution can accelerate the effects of free radical damage, particularly when coupled with sun exposure.

Nutrition

Antioxidants are molecules with the ability to neutralize the free radicals that damage skin and speed up skin aging. Eating lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables is an important part of caring for our skin as it ages.

Inappropriate skincare

Skin will age more quickly if it is poorly cared for or if you use products that irritate skin. Thorough cleansing using gentle products appropriate for skin type, together with the regular application of care products targeted at skin’s primary concern, will help to care for skin. Effective sun protection is key to preventing premature skin aging.

SOLUTIONS

How can I care for aging skin and reduce premature skin aging?

Understanding the skin’s aging process informs decisions about how best to care for it. The three key signs of aging: fine lines and wrinkles, sagging skin and a loss of volume and a loss of elasticity, and deep wrinkles are examined in more detail in separate articles.

A holistic approach to lifestyle and skincare can help to prevent premature skin aging and reduce the visible signs of skin aging.

Lifestyle

As oxidative stress is the primary external cause of skin aging, lifestyle changes should focus on minimizing its effects.

Nutrition

A healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, will ensure an intake of antioxidants that can help to limit the damaging effects of free radicals on the skin. As much variety as possible should be included, but some foods are known to be particularly high in antioxidants and might even have a skin protecting effect: carrots, apricots, other orange and yellow fruit and vegetables, blueberries, leafy green vegetables, bell peppers, tomatoes, beans and other pulses, oily fish (such as salmon) and nuts.

Smoking

Smoking accelerates aging remarkably, reducing elasticity and causing dullness. Stopping smoking will help to improve skin’s appearance.

A good night’s sleep can help as part of a holistic approach to skin aging.
Prevent skin aging with a good night’s sleep
Skin aging: support skin by eating healthily
Eating more of the right foods should be part of a holistic approach to skin care.

Skin care

Skin changes with each life stage and the way it is cared for should reflect its changing needs.

A good skincare routine is an essential part of a holistic approach to treating all signs of aging: wrinkles, loss of volume, loss of elasticity and related conditions such as age induced dryness or sensitive aging skin.

If your skin is healthy, good care will ensure it stays in condition. If not, a consistent routine can help to improve it. A basic skincare routine should consist of three steps: cleanse, care and sun protection.

Aging skin: cleanse regularly
Regular cleansing removes the chemicals that can cause oxidative stress.