What are the characteristics of aging skin?

There are many characteristics of aging skin that we can look out for.

Our skin looks and feels different as we age, and understanding what these changes are and how they occur can tell us how best to slow or even prevent them.

The epidermis

Skin is composed of multiple layers, and the outermost layer of our skin, the epidermis, is composed of a thick stack of skin cells. These cells are generated at the bottom of the epidermis. As they mature, they migrate toward the surface. The outermost part of the epidermis (the stratum corneum) consists of 25-30 layers of dead cells. These cells are eventually sloughed off as new cells push up from below.

As we age, new cells at the base of the epidermis form at a slower rate, making our skin thinner. At the same time, dead cells are not pushed off as quickly, and instead pile up on the skin’s surface, making it drier, rougher and duller in appearance.

The dermis

The most significant changes in terms of our skin’s appearance occur in the dermis – the layer below the epidermis. This layer is normally thick with connective tissue (mainly collagen, elastin and proteoglycans), which provides much of our skin’s strength and resilience and some of its ability to retain water.

With age, the dermis also becomes thinner and drier. Also, instead of being a delicate scaffold, its main structural proteins deteriorate, leaving behind fragmented, thickened and disorganized fibers. These don’t work as well as our better-organized, youthful matrix, either in maintaining the skin’s support structures or providing healthy places for our skin cells to live.

Over time, as our support tissues lose their ability to retain tension, our skin becomes less elastic (a condition known as elastosis) and more prone to sagging. Similar changes also lead to wrinkles.

Finally, changes in the deep tissues underlying our skin also impact significantly on our aging appearance. Although our waistlines tend to expand with age, there is often changes in the characteristics of aging skin including a reduction in the deposits of fat under the skin on our cheeks, shins and the backs of our hands, making it look and feel papery. The loss of support tissue also leads to sagging, with aging faces looking more ‘squared off’ compared to the angular shapes of youthful faces.

Old under the sun

When we despair about the onset of lines and wrinkles, roughness and unwanted pigmentation, we need look no further than our time in the sun for its origins. Four out of five wrinkles, and most of the freckles on our faces, are due to sun exposure.

Exposure to UV, visible and infrared radiation from sunlight results in cumulative changes in the texture, color and quality of our skin (known as photo-aging). We can appreciate this when comparing the leathery, sun-exposed skin at our necklines with the skin on adjacent areas of smooth, unblemished non-exposed skin.

Preventing excessive solar damage with the regular use of broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF30+ sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats and protective clothing is the most effective way to slow or even prevent the negative characteristics of aging skin.

Early signs of sun damage to our skin may be difficult to see in the mirror or by looking at old photos.

Imaging under UV light allows clinicians to look at superficial and deep pigments in our skin. An imaging test can give a score relative to our age. Repeat examinations can help track the effectiveness of treatment programs.

How to keep our skin healthy as we age

Our general health is reflected in the quality of our skin. If we want youthful, healthy-looking skin, it is important to first optimize our general health. This means managing our weight, nutrition, hormonal balance and hydration. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, a high-fat diet, obesity and diabetes all impact negatively on the health and aging of our skin, as well as on other parts of our bodies.

The effects of photo-aging vary from person to person, depending on the duration and intensity of our sun exposure, skin type, genetic legacies and our diet.

For example, a low-GI diet rich in vegetables, nuts, legumes and olive oil is associated with reduced rates of skin aging, given the same cumulative exposure to the sun. By contrast, increased skin aging is seen in those with a high intake of meat, full-fat dairy and butter.

Be consistent with skin care

Whatever products we decide to use, we should make them a regular part of our ongoing skincare routine. Chopping and changing among skincare products puts us right back at the start each time we change our regime.

When you do try a new product, give it three months to work. Any less and you may not be giving a product a reasonable chance to have significantly effect your skin. If you see no results in that period, it’s likely that the product isn’t working effectively for you.

We should remember, too, that no one product can stop the effects of time and sun. At best, we can use a combination of topical therapies, oral antioxidants, healthy diet and, most importantly, protection from excessive solar damage to slow the aging of our skin.

Options to help reduce aging skin

  • Apply broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF30+ sunscreen liberally before sun exposure and every two hours while exposed to the sun.
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats and protective clothing, and avoid tanning beds. Remember that UVA rays, visible and infrared light all have the capacity to penetrate glass, so even working near sun-drenched windows without protection can age your skin.
  • Drink more water: at least 2-3 liters every day. Drink more on long plane journeys, during heavy exertion and in hot, dry weather.
  • Cleanse, morning and night, every day. This will wash away excess oil, pollution, make-up and dead skin particles that build up on your skin’s surface throughout the day.
  • Moisturize – morning and night. Good moisturizer does more than merely keep your skin hydrated. Moisturizers protect and nourish your skin’s structure and functions. Always choose moisturizers that suit your skin type. Make your moisturizers multi-task. Look for products that contain one or two key active ingredients to support collagen synthesis or those with added antioxidants.
  • Choose skin products high in antioxidants. Antioxidants reduce solar damage when used topically, such as CoQ10, proanthocyanidins and polyphenols. Apply treatment products before moisturizer to ensure maximum absorption.
  • Eat a low-fat diet naturally high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. This will help moderate the deleterious impact of sunlight and time on our skin by preventing oxidative damage and inflammation.
  • Take antioxidant supplements for added efficacy. Choose one that will get to the skin, such as CoQ10, lipoic acid, and carotenoids, including lutein, lycopenes and zeaxanthin.
  • Take 500-1000mg glucosamine daily to support collagen synthesis.
  • Stop smoking
  • Optimize your hormones. Low hormonal levels will impair your skin’s function and resilience. There are many things you can do to get your hormone levels up and keep them that way long term.
  • Get quality sleep. Tiredness shows on our skin: when we are more rested, our skin is also more rested and the benefits are clearly apparent. They don’t call it beauty sleep for nothing!
  • Make an appointment to have a skin assessment. The best way to look good when older is to deal with any changes in your skin early. It isn’t easy to spot these changes so get professional advice for choosing the right program to work for you.

Last reviewed 15/May/2017

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