Why Does Skin Wrinkle With Age?

Over time, wrinkles form in the skin as a result of both intrinsic and extrinsic aging, meaning that wrinkles will appear in different places and at different rates based on both external environmental effects and the body’s natural metabolic changes. 

If you’re a young person with pure, smooth and unblemished skin, consider yourself lucky that Father Time hasn’t come calling at your mirror. However, the anti-aging industry brings in more than $50 billion USD each year, so protecting against wrinkles and other signs of aging is clearly something that concerns a large portion of the population!

So, if you’re blessed with perfect skin in your younger years, why isn’t your body able to maintain that same integrity? What inevitably leads people to develop wrinkles as they age?

Skin Composition

Before we get into the threats to our skin, and the causes behind the signs of aging, it is important to understand the fundamental structure of our skin. To begin with, the skin is the largest organ of the body, and is more formally known as the integumentary system. It covers our entire body, with the exception of certain mucus membranes exposed to the outer environment, and serves a critical role in immunity, as well as temperature regulation, sensation, and vitamin D production, among others.

Our skin is composed of three basic layers: the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis.

layer of skin

Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons

  • Hypodermis: This is the lowermost layer of skin, and mainly contains fat cells, blood vessels, nerves and loose connective tissue. This is also where hair follicle roots are located.
  • Dermis: This is the middle layer of skin, lying between the hypodermis and epidermis. The dermis layer consists of irregular connective tissue, nerves, blood vessels, hair follicles, collagen and elastic fibers. More specifically, it contains mast cells, fibroblasts and macrophages. It is also the region of the skin with many of the nerve endings related to sensation, including those for temperature, pressure,
  • Epidermis: Most of the cells found in the epidermis are keratinocytes, which form connections with nerves below the surface of the skin. There are also melanocytes, inflammatory cells and various other specialized cells in small numbers. The epidermis serves as the main junction for any immune response of the skin, as well as fluid transfer across the skin barrier. This section of the skin is composed of layers of flattened cells, the depth of which may be referred to as “thick” or “thin” skin.

not sure if i have this skin mem

The Types of Aging

When we talking about aging of the skin, there are two different types of aging that must be considered: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic Aging

Our bodies are complex and beautiful machines, but as is true of any machine, they wear down over time and perform at less than their top efficiency. When we are young, our epidermis is healthy and full of life, with even coloring and a smooth texture. This pristine condition is largely due to the presence of collagen, elastin and glycosaminoglycans. These three compounds provide firmness, elasticity and hydration, respectively, which are the key to smooth skin that rebounds every time you smile, frown or get your cheeks tugged on by your grandmother.

However, as you get older, the supply of these compounds is diminished. Starting around the age of 20, the body produces a smaller amount of collagen (about 1% less each year), which can decrease the thickness of your flattened cell layer, leading to thinner skin. Less elastin is also produced, so your skin is less able to “bounce back” when it is pulled or stretched. Fewer glycosaminoglycans also means that your skin is less able to stay hydrated, leading to dry skin that wrinkles more easily.

Additionally, the fat deposits in your hypodermis decrease over time, so there is less support for the upper layers of the skin; this can lead to the appearance of loose or sagging skin, and will make the appearance of wrinkles more obvious. No matter how you struggle to defend against such intrinsic aging, it is a universal process that affects everyone, but its effects are relatively minimal. When exacerbated by extrinsic aging, however, the symptoms of intrinsic aging may be much more pronounced.

Extrinsic Aging

While you can’t do much to avoid intrinsic aging, extrinsic aging is largely determined by your lifestyle and personal choices. Environmental or external factors can be much more impactful to your overall appearance than the natural aging outlined above. Some of the most common elements of extrinsic aging include smoking, exposure to the elements, and toxins on the skin.

For example, if you smoke, the active ingredient in cigarettes (nicotine) will cause a narrowing of the blood vessels beneath the surface of the skin. This will cut down on the delivery of oxygen and other critical nutrients, leading to sagging skin much sooner than the loose skin of intrinsic aging. Exposure to toxins, such as pollution, can also negatively impact your skin health. Regularly swimming or bathing in unclean water, or having your skin constantly exposed to airborne pollutants, will create micro-inflammation on the skin, which the body will attempt to remedy. Unfortunately, the body’s solution may remove excess collagen through enzymatic activity, leading to the more rapid development of wrinkles.

The most common and often blamed cause of wrinkles, however, is exposure to the natural elements, particularly sunlight. UV radiation from sun exposure can lead to a range of issues, including skin cancer, sunspots and freckles. More importantly, it can hasten the decline of collagen, elastin and glycosaminoglycans, leaving the skin looking rough, discolored, dry, loose and deeply furrowed. This is in addition to the potentially fatal side effects of the many cancers caused by excessive sun exposure.

Ways to Prevent Wrinkles

With that knowledge of intrinsic and extrinsic aging factors in hand, some of the best preventative measures should be obvious, but there are other strategies that can also do you a lot of good.

Avoid Sun Exposure: While some amount of sunlight is essential to maintain healthy vitamin D levels, too much exposure to UV radiation without protection will cause a sunburn, as well as deep-tissue damage at the cellular level, increasing your chances for cancer and premature aging. There are plenty of health benefits to spending time outdoors and active, but experts say that only 15 minutes of sun exposure 2-3 times per week is enough for your vitamin D needs.

Avoid Smoking: There are dozens of health conditions linked to smoking, making quitting a wise strategy for anyone, but it is definitely a must for anyone who is determined to keep their skin looking young and beautiful as they age.

Use Moisturizer: Keeping your skin hydrated is essential, and while you can partially due this by keeping yourself dehydrated, moisturizers will also be absorbed by the skin to lessen the appearance of wrinkles and ensure your skin has all the nutrients and moisture it requires.

Vitamin-Rich Diet: Eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods is a great way to help your skin health by boosting elasticity and promoting collagen production. Foods rich in vitamin E and vitamin A are particularly useful for preventing or delaying the onset of wrinkles and signs of aging.

Retinoids: For those already experiencing the signs of aging, retinoids are topical applications that can boost the skin’s regenerative qualities and improve appearance and texture.

A Final Word

As the saying goes, only two things are certain: death and taxes. However, if you live long enough, wrinkles are another guarantee for the vast majority of humans. Fortunately, understanding both the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that can lead to wrinkles may help you slow this onset, or at least appreciate the altered beauty that age, self-confidence and wisdom can bring!

References

  1. Dartmouth College
  2. Harvard University
  3. University of North Texas
  4. Mayo Clinic
  5. ScienceDirect
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John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, an arts nonprofit based in Denver. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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