We can’t stop the ageing process. But we can lessen the effect it has on our skin.
We’ll never be able to completely eliminate things like wrinkles or sagging skin, but with a bit of effort and the right treatments we can keep our skin healthy enough to hold off some of these signs of ageing, and lessen their severity when they do arrive.
‘Ageing’ can mean different things to different people, so let’s look at some of the more common signs of ageing skin.
Wrinkles are probably the most common sign that we’re starting to get older. As we age our skin produces fewer collagen fibres, and the elastin that holds these fibres together begins to weaken. We also lose muscle mass and some skin thickness, and our skin can become dehydrated too1. These physiological processes cause skin to wrinkle over time. There are a few things that can speed this process up, like sun damage and cigarette smoking. Wrinkles can also be affected by things we can’t control, like genetics, our facial expressions, and gravity2.
As we age our skin begins to sag. If you’ve ever wondered why your skin looks less plump than it did when you were younger, it’s due to your skin losing elasticity over time. Thinner lips, sunken cheeks, and a ‘double chin’ can be signs of sagging skin. Similar to wrinkles, this is caused by our bodies producing fewer collagen fibres as we age, and the weakening of the elastin that holds them together1. Other big factors are gravity and sun damage: the ‘weather beaten’ look of someone who spends a lot of time working outdoors is an example of sagging skin caused by sun damage7.
The sun is the number one thing that can damage your skin2. Sun damage contributes to virtually every sign of ageing, including wrinkles, sagging skin, dehydration, and skin discolouration. It can also cause skin cancer: in Australia, the majority of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun3. Make no mistake, the sun’s damaging effect on your skin is real, and can be very serious.
As we get older we can sometimes notice changes in our skin’s pigmentation. Hyperpigmentation and melasma5 are common conditions in which parts of our skin become darker than normal due to an excess of melanin (the pigment that produces our normal skin colour). Hyperpigmentation often occurs due to trauma to the skin—for example, from acne scarring—while melasma can be a hormonal change. We can also notice ‘age spots’, freckles, new moles, and brown marks pop up. Many of these can be a result of sun damage6.
It’s fairly common to notice our skin getting drier as we get older. Dehydration—from not drinking enough water—is a common cause of this, as are sun damage and cigarette smoking. But skin dryness can also be caused by hormonal changes, and our body losing oil and sweat glands as we age7. Dry skin can also cause itchiness and rough patches on the skin, which can be uncomfortable, and it can also lead to a general ‘dullness’ of the skin. This can occur due to a decrease in cell turnover which leaves us with more dead skin cells on the topmost layer of our skin8.
Look in any magazine and you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of the skincare giants have already found the fountain of youth. We’re constantly advertised lotions and potions that promise to reverse all signs of ageing and keep us looking young long after our first few grey hairs have arrived—but how many of those products really work?
The naked truth is that we can’t completely restore aged skin. But we can work on reducing many of the symptoms of aged skin, and we can help our skin look fresher and healthier. There’s no one ‘miracle product’ that will do it—instead, there are a couple of smart, science-backed solutions.
Retinoids are in the skincare spotlight at the moment. These ingredients have been a favourite of dermatologists for years, but have recently become widely available over-the-counter as well. Retinoids work by increasing skin cell turnover, which promotes new cell growth and can give a ‘fresher’ appearance to the skin. They also slow the breakdown of collagen and thicken the skin, giving wrinkles less of a chance to take hold. If you have acne, or acne scarring, retinoids can help eliminate it too9.
Retinoids are available by prescription as well, with Tretinoin being one of the most widely-used. Studies have shown that Tretinoin can vastly improve the appearance of mild to severely sun-damaged skin, specifically targeting fine and coarse wrinkles, skin laxity (sagging), hyperpigmentation, and roughness10,11. One paper even wrote, ‘Amongst various anti-ageing agents, retinoids are the most promising agents that are available for the treatment of ageing. Amongst retinoids, tretinoin is the most potent and best-studied retinoid’ (Mukherjee et. al. 2006).
Tretinoin’s strength means that it can mildly irritate some sensitive skin, but this can be mitigated by using a lower-strength prescription or applying moisturiser before applying Tretinoin. Because Tretinoin—and all retinoids—increase skin cell turnover and make our skin sensitive, a sunscreen must be worn after using them. Take a look at our Guide to Tretinoin.
Niacinamide is available both over-the-counter and by prescription. It’s most commonly a topical treatment (a cream, gel, or serum) but it can also be prescribed orally, as a tablet. It has several properties that have made it an extremely popular ingredient in skincare: it boosts production of collagen, ceramides, and lipids, which improves skin elasticity and reduces fine lines and wrinkles13. It can also even out skin tone by reducing redness, blotchiness, and hyperpigmentation13; and it reduces sebum production while still retaining skin moisture which makes it a great choice for acne-prone skin as well14.
Niacinamide is a good option for anyone whose skin may be too sensitive for stronger treatments, as skin irritation after usage is very rare15. It’s also highly compatible with Tretinoin and Azelaic Acid, as well as many other ingredients. Take a look at our Guide to Niacinamide.
Facial acids act as chemical exfoliants, and Azelaic Acid is one of the most gentle yet effective facial acids out there. Azelaic Acid is a powerful treatment for acne, but it also clears up hyperpigmentation, inflammation, and redness left behind after trauma to the skin. It’s also frequently used to treat melasma and rosacea, with excellent results16,17, and it can prevent build-ups of dead skin cells which can contribute to skin dullness18.
Azelaic Acid is popular due to how compatible it is with sensitive skin. It’s unlikely to cause irritation after usage, and any irritation may be mild compared with other facial acids. It’s very compatible with other treatments as well, and can be used with Tretinoin and Niacinamide as part of a full skin care routine. Take a look at our Guide to Azelaic Acid.
Skin treatments can play a big role in how quickly our skin ages, but there are many other things we should do to make sure our skin looks as healthy and young as possible.
The fact that getting older is such an inevitable process can make us think that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about the signs of ageing, but this isn’t the case. The actions we take to improve our skin’s health and appearance today can have a major affect in the future.
Whether you’re making some healthy changes in your life or investing in skincare—or both—it’s important to know that there is real science backing up the treatments that can help us look younger. Ageing is unavoidable, but with some time and effort, we can look our best while getting older.