The Science of Aging Skin: What It Means for You and What You Can Do About It
Everyone had that one kid they knew in elementary school. You know the one. “Hey! Your epidermis is showing!” Those not in the know would scramble about, checking their clothing in search of that embarrassing exposure while the rest would laugh. The playground was a cruel place.
By now though, you likely know that the epidermis is your outer layer of skin. And since your skin is the largest organ your body has, a barrier to infections and all that the outside world throws at it, you need to protect it.
What Skin Does
As a barrier, your skin is responsible for not just keeping pathogens and microorganisms out but also trapping water in. And yes, when it is well-kept, skin also helps you exude that effervescence of youth even as you make more trips around the sun.
Fun fact: your organs start aging the moment you’re born. As the skin is an organ itself, it also starts aging. Because it’s so large, the signs of aging can be very obvious and prominent in the skin. That’s why many of us work so hard to keep our skin looking youthful, going to great lengths to appear as ageless as possible.
The process, cutaneous aging, is merely a melding of two portions. The first is intrinsic aging, something that is inevitable for all of us. This happens through a degenerative process, revealing itself in time with thinner and drier skin that wrinkles and sags. The second is extrinsic, which is caused by external factors in the environment as well as your lifestyle. Think pollution, sun exposure (also known as photoaging), poor nutrition, and smoking. Put these two things together and it is easy to see why some people seem to age more rapidly than others.
Beauty goes beyond what you see when you look at your skin. In fact, understanding the composition of skin can help you see why you need to look deeper when it comes to skincare.
Skin Structure: What’s It Made Of?
Your skin has three distinctive layers, though you can only see the outer one with your own eyes. Fun fact: your skin has a total area that equals approximately 20 square feet! Its purpose is to protect you from invading microbes, serving as a layer that keeps them out of your internal organs. It regulates your body temperature and gives you all the sensations you can feel from hot and cold to simple touch.
The epidermis is your outermost skin layer. That’s the one you’re looking at right now, the waterproof barrier that stands between your organs and the world around you. It also creates your skin’s tone.
Underneath that is the dermis. It holds those tough connective tissues. It’s also where your hair follicles and sweat glands reside. There are two layers of the dermis, though the main function as far as skincare is concerned is that it features collagen, a protein naturally present in your skin that is responsible for upholding a firm structure. Go further down under the dermis and you’ll find the deeper subcutaneous tissue, a layer of fat and connective tissues.
Basically, your epidermis holds it all together, but damages can occur underneath which reveal the signs of aging and the tolls that skin conditions take to make you look older.
What’s Bacteria and Acne Got to Do with It?
Acne is caused by bacteria in the skin. Around 50 million Americans have acne, the most common skin condition by far. What’s fascinating though is that the balance of bacteria present in the skin’s microbiome is what seems to play a role in breakouts.
When balance in the skin is disturbed, it causes acne to erupt. It creates a vicious cycle where the skin becomes oily, traps dead skin cells that should shed off, and then all of this gets tucked inside the pores. The pores become irritated and inflamed and acne pops up.
Restoring balance is essential to skin. Without correcting it, the problems continue and can make the skin look worn and aged rather than smooth and youthful. Sebum, the skin’s natural oil responsible for keeping it supple, goes into overproduction to correct dryness. Often, it’s due to the skincare products you’re using and a lack of exfoliating at regular intervals to keep debris, like those shedding dead skin cells, from getting lodged into pores with acne bacteria.
Keeping your skin healthy is especially important if you have acne. Using proper skincare treatments can help you get the complexion you’re looking for and slow down visible signs of aging.
What’s Going On with Those Visible Signs of Aging?
While we’re all aging from the moment we’re born, it’s not usually until the age of 25 that the first visible signs really start to surface. For some, it’s much later, though lifestyle and skincare factors can certainly help.
When you hit the age of 25, you might notice fine lines starting to form. Some may see a loss of volume or elasticity at this point too. It all depends on a set of factors that may or may not be in your control. Genes are part of it, something you have zero control over. But what you can control is your exposure to the sun, something that can age you incredibly fast if you don’t take steps to protect your skin from UV rays.
So, if you are in your 20s and see fine lines forming, don’t just sit there! Do something about it! You may also notice what’s referred to as crow’s feet, those little lines from laughing that form around the outer corners of your eyes. Those can come in as early as the age of 30, though there are plenty of people who move through their 30s without even so much as a line.
Loss of volume also happens to skin, where you see your facial contours fade away and skin sags. Your cheeks will look flatter and you may fall victim to the dreaded turkey neck. As elasticity depletes and the skin's matrix weakens, firmness is lost. Along with that, skin takes on a crepey appearance and begins to look drier and duller.
Forehead wrinkles and other lines become more pronounced too, often because of our changing facial expressions. These are called dynamic wrinkles. The older you get, the more prominent they become, and yes, the more difficult they are to make disappear. That’s why if you're concerned about visible aging, you’ve got to do something about them now.
Aging is inevitable, but that doesn't mean you can't always strive for healthy skin.
Going Deeper into Skin Aging
As mentioned earlier, skin aging is a combination of internal and external factors. For the epidermis, hyaluronic acid content depletes while cell turnover slows down. Sebum production is reduced which can leave skin drier and rougher. And after all those years of protecting you, your skin becomes more sensitive to the rays of the sun. It slowly becomes less efficient at healing itself, and as your immunity functions deplete, you have a greater chance of skin infections.
Moving down into the dermis, your collagen is decreasing to the tune of 1% each year after the age of 25. Elastin also declines, leading to the destruction of your skin’s matrix. As elasticity reduces, it’s easier for wrinkles to form and form deep. Your cells are less efficient at binding water so you have to work harder to keep your skin looking younger.
Skin aging takes its toll on every layer of your skin. Take a look at how both internal and external factors come to play in determining how young or old you appear!
~Internal Aging Factors~
Based on genetics and skin type, you may be predisposed to show the signs of aging sooner than others. Then, there’s biological versus chronological age, which will offer its own impacts on visual aging as well.
Chronological age is the amount of time you’ve actually been alive. This number can’t change no matter how you live your life. Meanwhile, your biological age is external aging in that some of it is under your control. Perhaps you can’t rid your city of pollution, but you can combat the ill effects of the environment by exercising, drinking plenty of water, eating right, getting enough sleep, and taking good care of your skin.
The fact is, we all age at different rates. That’s why you might go to your 10- or 20-year high school reunion and see old classmates that either still look just as they did when they sat next to you in class or they look so old it takes your breath away.
Although there are factors you can control, biological age is a change in your skin that is inevitable. It depletes skin structure as mentioned previously and the efficiency of your cell function starts to slow down. Research has found that while chronological aging is out of our control, there are markers that give hope for biological aging.
For one, telomeres and DNA methylation are a huge part of it. Telomeres are what cap the ends of chromosomes. Think of them like the stitching on the hem of your shirt to keep it from unraveling. These telomeres reveal how quickly cells will age and die. The higher your chronological age is, the shorter your telomeres become. But you can reverse the signs of aging by lengthening the telomeres with a healthier lifestyle.
DNA methylation is a bit more complex, basically turning genes off so they won’t express unwanted results. Studies have found that certain parts of the body age much more rapidly than other parts. That leads to cellular senescence which is when the division of cells is halted. On average, your cells will divide around 50 times.
Cellular senescence is kicked off by many different factors revolving around stress. Some of that is internal like abnormal cellular growth while others are external such as oxidative stress. Scientists surmise that the key to holding off aging might be in this cellular senescence that can prevent aging and aid in tissue repair.
~External Aging Factors~
Now, let’s look at what’s causing your skin to age from an external angle. It all comes down to oxidative stress. This is when molecules known as free radicals start attacking your healthy skin cells. They ravage and pillage, taking down hyaluronic acid stores, collagen, and elastin.
Antioxidants in your skin fight these antagonists, but as you age, you have less of them available to do your bidding against the destroyers of your skin. As such, the skin cells become damaged and signs of aging take hold.
Oxidative stress is brought on and even sped up by certain things in your lifestyle. You may see it in the form of uneven pigmentation first. Pollution is something that can expedite free radical damage. Speed things up even more with sun exposure. If you have both pollution and unprotected sun exposure in your life, there’s a good chance your skin is going to age faster.
And yes, smoking is bad for you. We’ll spare you the lecture on what it does to your internal organs, but for your skin, the chemicals found in cigarettes, plus nicotine, up the number of free radicals destroying your cells.
What you eat also plays a role in the external factors you can control. Those that eat healthily have a better advantage than people who aren’t paying attention to what they put in their bodies. Foods that have plenty of antioxidants in them like fresh vegetables and fruits help give aging skin just what it needs from the inside out.
And perhaps most unsurprising of all, what you use on your skin and how you take care of it can impact how it looks. No matter how high quality a product you use to cleanse your skin or follow with moisturization, it must be formulated for your skin type. Even if you get those things right, skipping SPF when you walk out the door (yes, even on cold or cloudy days) can undo all the great things you’re doing for your skin. It’s like that final shield that seals the deal for your ultimate skincare routine.
The Role of Collagen and Elastin in Skin
Basically, there’s a lot going on with your skin. Under the surface, you have collagen and elastin proteins composed of amino acids that keep that skin matrix we discussed earlier looking alive and fabulous.
Collagen is the most abundant of them, found in your muscles, tendons, and bones as well as skin. Think of it like cement that connects everything together. Then there’s elastin which gives the structure. These two are a team that keeps you looking youthful.
But when you throw caution to the wind and don’t look after your lifestyle, those aggressive external factors come back into play. While you can’t stop collagen from depleting due to chronological aging, you can most certainly take steps to slow down the process.
If you want to keep that skin matrix strong, firm, and youthful-looking, you should never skip that SPF, eat more antioxidant-rich foods, watch your sugar intake, and get a sufficient amount of rest.
How to Use What Science Knows to Fight the Signs of Skin Aging
This scientific exploration of aging skin is essential to help you fight the signs of premature aging. Now that you know what happens to your skin with chronological aging and biological factors, it’s time to use that knowledge to keep your skin looking healthy and beautiful.
1. Make sleep a priority
At night, your skin cells as well as all the cells in your body get busy. This time of rest is so important in allowing cells to function optimally. Your skin cells are like a cleaning crew that works overnight in an office building after everyone has gone home. Your body needs a good 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night to complete this process effectively.
If you stay up too late every night, fatigue is going to start showing itself on your face. Start setting an alarm for bedtime and stick to it. Also, turn off devices or at least put them down an hour before climbing under the covers. Blue light can do damage to your skin too.
2. Focus on your nutrition
Your skin shows its appreciation for proper nutrients with a healthy and youthful glow. Start swapping out unhealthy foods for antioxidant-rich fresh produce. Incorporate as many colors of the rainbow as you can in each meal to get different types of antioxidants. Other foods that have healthy fats like wild-caught salmon and nuts are also encouraged for beautiful skin.
3. Toss out those smokes
Smoking is a huge accelerator of aging skin. If you want to keep your youthful appearance, kick the habit now to save your skin down the road.
4. Step up your skincare routine
You can’t keep the same skincare routine you had in your younger years. You should always reevaluate the products you use as your skin changes and with the seasons to keep it at its best. One of the most important steps is cleansing, though so many people skip the cleansing process at night.
Cleansing skin before bed is critical as it removes chemicals that cause oxidative stress. Be sure to wash away pollution, debris, and makeup from your skin every night without fail.
Keep in mind, your cleanser should never leave your skin feeling dry and tight. After you pat your skin dry, add moisture back in with serums, moisturizers, and creams. The ones you use will depend on your skin type.
In the morning, make sure you’re using SPF products to provide protection. Cover all exposed portions of your skin with it, even if you’re not planning to stay out in the sun. Those long drives to work in your car or even sitting near a window at your office can expose you to damaging UV rays that will age your skin.
Check out our curated Science-Based skincare routine here.
5. Don’t forget about exfoliation
Exfoliation is a necessary part of skin health that so many people forget. You shouldn’t exfoliate every day, but it should be a part of your weekly routine. In fact, it is so important that even if you’re doing everything else right, your skin isn’t as healthy as it could be when you’re not exfoliating.
The Role of Exfoliation on Your Skin’s Health
Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. It’s important to do because as you age, your skin becomes less efficient at this practice on its own. When cell turnover slows, you’ll be regenerating new skin cells at a slower pace too.
The old skin cells pile up and leave your skin with a dull, rough, and dry appearance. And yes, if you go back to the discussion about acne earlier on, it can cause the skin to break out, even if you never had trouble with acne before.
Proper exfoliation is essential for getting rid of dead skin cell buildup. It will leave your skin fresh and healthy. One of the best ways to exfoliate is through microdermabrasion. This practice can be done weekly, even at home with a quality at-home tool that takes care of skin congestion, removes dead skin cells, and reveals more youthful skin all at once.
And while exfoliating your skin is a great thing, especially when you use microdermabrasion, do keep in mind that overdoing it can be just as bad as not doing it at all. Stick to weekly sessions and you will soon see your most beautiful, youthful, and healthy skin every time you look in the mirror!
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