Getting older is never a bad thing, but seeing the signs of ageing on our face can certainly be jarring. Many of us dedicate a fair bit of time, money, and energy towards trying to make our skin stay looking young as we age, often with mixed results.
A lot can be done to improve the health and appearance of ageing skin. But to do so, we first have to understand why our skin ages the way it does, what physical processes are occurring when we talk about skin ageing, and how much of the ageing process we can actually affect.
Let’s be clear about what ‘skin ageing’ actually is. We’re talking about the visible signs of ageing that start appearing in our late twenties and continue on for the rest of our lives: wrinkles, fine lines, sun spots, visible pores, and skin that’s dry, sagging, or dull. This doesn’t just occur on our faces, either: our hands and neck can reflect our age as much as the skin on our face.
To understand why and how skin ages, we need to understand how our skin works.
Skin consists of three layers: epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue1.
The epidermis is our outermost layer of skin, and provides a tough, waterproof barrier around our bodies. It also contains cells called melanocytes, which give us our skin tone and create freckles or moles2.
Underneath the epidermis is the dermis, which contains hair follicles, sweat glands, fats, collagen, and elastin. Collagen is the protein that gives our skin much of its structure, and elastin gives our skin its elasticity. Under the epidermis is the subcutaneous tissue, which is made primarily of fat and helps keep us warm2.
As we get older, our body slows down the production of some important proteins which makes it easier for our skin to wrinkle, sag, and dry out. Some of this ageing process is inevitable—it happens to everyone, no matter how good their skincare routine is!
But some of this process can be affected, stopped, and even reversed. So let’s break the ageing process down even more, into the two types of ageing: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic ageing begins around the age of twenty, and is the body’s natural process of ageing. It’s unavoidable, unstoppable, and it happens to everyone, although it has been suggested that genetics can play a role in the speed at which intrinsic ageing occurs3.
When intrinsic ageing begins, our bodies start to produce less and less collagen each year2, which leads to our skin losing ‘fullness’ and structure over time. The remaining elastin and collagen fibres become clumped and loose, reducing our skin’s elasticity and ‘bounce’. This loss of structure and elasticity makes it easier for wrinkles to form on our skin.
As we age further, our skin’s self-exfoliation process slows down, fat cells in the dermis begin to shrink, and moisture transfer between the epidermis and the dermis begins to slow2. Our sebaceous glands also shrink, which means sebum (skin oils) are produced less. What all of this basically amounts to is that dry, rough, and dehydrated skin becomes more likely as we age.
But understanding what intrinsic ageing is doesn’t explain why some people seem to age so much quicker than others. After all, some people look refreshed and relaxed well into their nineties, while others start to wrinkle in their thirties.
This is because of extrinsic ageing—the ageing process that we can stop.
Extrinsic ageing is any part of the ageing process that is caused by outside sources. There are a few causes of extrinsic ageing, but the primary one is something we’re exposed to every day: the sun.
The sun is the number one thing that can damage our skin4, and is responsible for almost every sign of extrinsic ageing including sagging skin, wrinkles, dehydration, liver and sun spots, and dull skin. The damage the sun can do to skin isn’t just cosmetic, though. In Australia the majority of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure, and two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer by the time they turn 705.
Skin cancer—and extrinsic skin ageing—can also be caused by air pollution6. Pollution can bombard the skin with free radicals, which are imbalanced molecules that steal electrons from healthy cells to survive. Some pollution can also deprive the skin of antioxidants and vitamins that it needs to stay healthy, which can in turn increase the appearance of extrinsic ageing.
Some other causes of extrinsic ageing include diet and cigarette smoking7. The nicotine in cigarettes narrows blood vessels, which reduces the amount of oxygen that can reach our skin cells; and many ingredients in cigarettes are known to degrade collagen and elastin.
Understanding the two types of ageing, and what causes them, can help us realise what we need to do to keep our skin looking healthy and young for as long as possible.
While intrinsic ageing isn’t really something we can stop, we can mitigate its effects with good skincare. There are many products that are scientifically proven to help restore skin’s elasticity and fullness, and prevent wrinkles from forming as quickly on the skin.
Extrinsic ageing is a little easier to combat, although it does require some big lifestyle changes. If you’re a smoker, or someone who never bothers to apply sunscreen, there are two things you can do right now to help stop ageing in its tracks.
Giving up the smokes and putting on sunscreen before you step out can make a huge difference in your health, and while we know these changes aren’t always easy to make, we reckon they’re worth it.
In the long run, it won’t only be your skin that benefits.