Woman touching her face with her left hand

Understanding skin aging How does skin age and how should I care for it?

From around the age of 25 the first signs of aging start to become apparent on the surface of the skin. Fine lines appear first and wrinkles, a loss of volume and a loss of density become noticeable over time.

Our skin ages for a variety of different reasons. Many of the causes of skin aging are entirely natural and cannot be altered. There are, however, several factors that can cause skin to age prematurely, and these can be influenced. A holistic approach to lifestyle and skincare can help to reduce the visible signs of skin aging and prevent premature skin aging.

Understanding the way that internal and external factors affect skin’s structure and function can help to inform choices about treatment and care.


The visible signs of skin ageing

There are three main signs of skin aging and each one effects facial skin in a different way:

The first noticeable signs of skin aging are fine lines and wrinkles. Small, shallow wrinkles known as laughter lines or crow´s feet tend to become noticeable at the outer corners of the eyes. These may appear around the age of 30, but we all age differently and how we age depends on our genetics and lifestyle. These fine lines are followed by wrinkles on the forehead. At first these are only visible when our skin moves as we change our facial expressions and they are known as dynamic wrinkles. As we age further they become more prominent and evolve into permanent wrinkles that are visible even when our face is static. Frowning can cause vertical lines between the brows.

Loss of volume
It can be difficult to identify a loss of volume and facial contours. The first signs of a loss of volume in the lips tends to be when lipstick starts to bleed. A loss of facial volume tends to result in sagging skin, a flattening of the cheeks and the appearance of a “turkey neck”. It changes the overall appearance of the face which can look negative, sad or tired. 

The fold that develops between the nose and the mouth, known as the nasolabial fold, is also linked to sagging skin and a loss of volume.

Loss of elasticity and deep wrinkles
As our skin matures its structure weakens and it loses elasticity and firmness. Skin also becomes drier, appears more `crepey` and loses the radiance we associate with youthful skin. Again, because our skin is as individual as we are, these changes become visible at different ages but are most commonly experienced by those who are 50+.

Signs of aging: fine lines and wrinkles
Fine lines and wrinkles are usually the first visible sign of skin aging.
Signs of skin aging: sagging skin
Sagging skin is a sign of loss of volume.
Signs of skin aging on face: deeper wrinkles
As our skin loses elasticity it becomes less firm and deeper wrinkles form.

Skin ages due to a combination of factors, both internal and external. Understanding these factors helps us to care for skin as it ages, reduce the visible signs of skin aging and prevent premature skin aging.

How does the skin aging process work?

Skin aging takes place in every layer of the skin and shows itself on the surface.

Epidermal layers
A loss of hyaluronic acid content, slower cell turnover and reduction in sebum production on the skin’s surface makes roughness and dryness more likely. As this particular layer of the skin ages it becomes more sensitive to the sun’s rays. Skin is less efficient at healing itself, and a reduced immune function can lead to an increase in skin infections together with slower wound healing.

Dermal layers
From about the age of 25, collagen, one of skin’s building blocks, decreases by 1% each year. Together with a decline in functional elastin, this leads to dermal tissue disorganization. Skin structure is compromised and fine lines and wrinkles are more likely. As our skin matures, elasticity continues to reduce and deeper wrinkles form. The production of hyaluronic acid – plentiful in youthful skin – slows down, so skin cells are less effective at binding in water and skin is prone to dryness. It also becomes weaker and more prone to damage and broken capillaries. Reduced micro-circulation means a less efficient delivery of nutrition and oxygen to the surface, which leads to a decrease in the radiance enjoyed by youthful skin.

Subdermal layers
In the deeper layers, the most notable changes are the reduction in size and number of lipid-storing cells in the adipose layer. This results in sagging skin and a loss of volume and can lead to deep wrinkles and hollow temples and cheeks.

The skin aging process affects every layer: graphic
The skin aging process affects every layer of skin 1 Epidermal layers, 2 Dermal layers, 3 Subdermal layers

What are the internal causes of skin aging?

Some of the causes of skin aging are inevitable. Our biological age determines structural changes in the skin and the efficiency of cell functions. These slow down with each passing year.

A poorer blood supply to the skin means the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the skin’s surface is impeded. A duller skin tone is predominant the rosy glow that is a feature of young skin disappears.

Genetics have a key role in how the skin ages. The ethnicity and skin type we are born with make a difference to how quickly the signs of ageing appear on the surface of the skin. For example a fair sensitive skin is prone to wrinkles at an earlier age, while asian skin can be prone to uneven skin tone and wrinkles appear at a later age. Age induced dryness can also be caused by a persons specific genetic make-up.

Read more about how ethnicity effects your skin

Graphic presentation of young skin and its connections between the layers.
In young skin, strong connections between the layers mean an efficient delivery of moisture and nutrients to the visible layers.
Graphic presentation of older skin with slowed connections between the layers.
Over time, these connections and systems slow, becoming less efficient. The result is visibly ageing skin.

External causes of ageing

The external factors affecting the speed with which the skin ages are all due to one process, oxidative stress. This is the release of molecules called free radicals, or reactive oxygen species, in the body. Free Radical Theory of Ageing states that we age due to the accumulation of damage due to free radicals as time goes by. A free radical is a highly volatile atom or molecule that consists of a single unpaired electron in an outer shell. The majority has extensive ability to damage all cell structures including lipids and proteins.

Under normal circumstances free radicals are caught and neutralised by anti-oxidants in the skin: molecules with the ability to absorb and stop them. However, over time, the skin’s ability to de-activate free-radicals decreases. The result is damage to all components of the skin cell. Oxidative stress is accelerated and triggered by a variety of lifestyle factors.

Exposure to the sun’s rays is the primary external factor responsible for skin ageing via oxidative stress. Damage to the skin caused by both prolonged exposure, and everyday exposure to the UV rays is called Photoageing, which is also responsible for uneven pigmentation.

Allowing the skin to be exposed to pollution, most commonly in cities, can trigger the release of skin damaging free radicals. In addition, pollution worsens the affects of sun exposure accelerating oxidative stress.

The chemicals and nicotine contained in cigarettes are responsible for an upsurge in the amount of free radicals in the skin. Like pollution they intensify the effects of sun exposure, leading to oxidative stress.

Lower part of a woman´s face with freckles.
Freckles and hyper-pigmentation are a result of the skin attempting to protect itself from the damaging effects of the sun.
Woman in a city with traffic behind her.
The pollution found in cities can accelerate the effects of free radical damage, particularly when coupled with sun exposure.

Anti-oxidants are molecules with the ability to neutralise the free radicals that damage skin, speeding up skin ageing. A diet lacking in antioxidants will do nothing to help slow down general skin ageing. However, eating lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can become a key tool in a holistic approach to prevention of the ageing process.

Too little care
Skin that is poorly cared for will age more quickly. Thorough cleansing using products appropriate for skin type together with regular application of skin care products targeted to the skin’s primary concern, can influence the skin to a great extent. Use of effective sun protection when exposed to sunlight is a key part of prevention.


Minimising the affects of ageing

Understanding the skin’s ageing process informs decisions about how to treat it. The three key signs of ageing: loss of volumeloss of density and wrinkles are examined in more detail in separate articles. If there is still uncertainty about which treatment route to take, the skin test may be a useful diagnostic tool. Both minimising the effects of ageing and preventing further ageing can be achieved through a holistic approach. This approach involves areas of lifestyle and care being examined and changed accordingly.

As oxidative stress is the primary cause of external skin ageing, any lifestyle changes should be targeted towards minimising its effects as much as possible.

A healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables will ensure an intake of anti-oxidants that can help to limit the damaging effects of free radicals on the skin. As much variety as possible should be included, but some foods are known to be particularly high in anti-oxidants and might even have a skin protecting effect: Carrots, apricots and other orange and yellow fruit and vegetables, blueberries, leafy green vegetables, bell peppers, tomatoes, beans and other pulses, fish – particularly salmon, and nuts.

As well as choosing the right foods, there is evidence to suggest that some should be avoided. A diet too high in fat and carbohydrates has been found to promote ageing.

Smoking accelerates ageing remarkably, reducing elasticity and causing dullness. Stopping smoking will help to improve the appearance of the skin by cutting out the chemicals and nicotine present in cigarettes.

Woman sleeping.
Plentiful sleep can help as part of a holistic preventative approach to ageing.
Woman holding a fork with a piece of tomato on it.
Eating more of the right sort of foods can be part of a holistic approach to prevention.

Skin Care
The skin changes with each life stage and the way it is cared for should reflect its changing needs as time goes by.

A good skin care routine is an essential part of a holistic approach to treating all signs of ageing: loss of volume, loss of density, wrinkles and related conditions such as age induced dryness or sensitive ageing skin.

If your skin is healthy, good care will ensure your skin stays in condition. If not, a consistent routine can help to improve it. A skincare routine should consist of three steps, cleanse, care and sun protection.

Cleansing removes make-up, dirt and chemicals from the skin. This is vital, as chemicals on the surface as a result of pollution can be a trigger for oxidative stress.

Care is the replenishment and hydration of the skin, using the appropriate products for the sign of ageing that is the primary concern. By targeting the concern with the correct products and their actives such as Hyaluronic Acid, Glycine-Saponin or Coenzyme Q10, improvements can be made to the appearance of the skin. Protecting the skin from UV rays is the most important step in the prevention of future skin ageing. The SPF product used should be selected with skin type and skin concern in mind.

Read more about facial sun protection

Middle-aged woman holding her face with both hands.
Regular facial cleansing can remove chemicals that can cause oxidative stress.
Woman´s face with care pads under her eyes.
Moisturising eye patches and hydrating face masks, can improve the appearance of skin.