We all know what wrinkles look like. Especially if we have them on our face and body. But do you know why you get them? I thought it’d be useful to dig into the anatomy of wrinkles. If you understand how wrinkles form, you will be more savvy about what can and cannot be done to improve them.
With so many wrinkle creams and serums claiming to reverse wrinkles, it’s tough to know what can realistically be achieved. I think most of us are skeptical of lofty claims, and rightly so. I don’t even read marketing copy anymore. They all say the same thing (“I will fix everything!”), which isn’t helpful. If anything, this kind of marketing copy is confusing and distracting.
So let’s have a closer look at what’s happening inside wrinkled skin.
Types of Wrinkles
A wrinkle is basically a depression or crease in the surface of skin. There are different types of wrinkles and wrinkle classification systems which I won’t go into here. But on a simple level, you can place them into 3 broad categories:
- Fine lines are shallow lines that are hard to see without looking at them up close. We exhibit fine lines sooner than deep lines. Some of those fine lines become deeper later. A common area for fine lines is around the eyes.
- Deep lines are pronounced grooves or furrows. They are very visible and tend to be long and straight. Examples: nasolabial folds, forehead lines, glabellar lines.
- Folds are the result of overlapping skin. This appears later in life when skin is much looser and sags.
Another way to look at wrinkles is whether they’re motion wrinkles or non-motion wrinkles:
- Wrinkles In Motion appear only when you make a specific facial expression, such as smiling. These types of wrinkles are due to muscle movements. At a certain point, these wrinkles become deep enough to appear even when you’re not making any expression.
- Wrinkles At Rest appear when you’re not moving a muscle. These types of wrinkles are due to sun damage, other sources of damage, and intrinsic (natural) aging. More on this below in the discussion of collagen and elastin.
How Wrinkles Form
Think of skin as a drape. When we’re young, our skin drapes smoothly, tightly, and evenly over the structures underlying skin (fat, muscle, bone, fluids). As we get older, this drape becomes looser, showing folds and creases.
Loose skin produces the appearance of wrinkles. It also makes skin sag.
What do you think is causing the ‘drape’ to change over time?
Skin changes biologically on multiple levels, all of which lead to the formation of wrinkles. Below are the major changes that will be familiar to you. (There are other factors, on a histological and cellular level, besides the ones listed below.)
1. Less FAT
One of the effects of natural aging is fat loss. On the face, the cheeks lose fat, which makes the skin sag and the cheeks look more hollow. When there’s less fat, there’s less facial volume. And when there’s less volume, there’s less for skin to drape over. We still have the same amount of skin, but it’s now covering less. So skin develops folds.
You can blame that folding (and sagging) on gravity. The earth’s gravitational force pulls everything down (if there’s nothing to resist the force, like bone).
This is why breasts and buttocks sag with age. The skin tissue weakens over time. When skin weakens, and there is nothing like bone to hold it up, where does it go? Down! Just like skin on the face.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Nothing, in terms of topical products. But there are surgical (fat replacement)and non-invasive cosmetic solutions (injectable fillers).
The best thing to do is follow a healthy diet that provides you with enough fat (the good kinds).
Sometimes I see women who try so hard to be thin, they deprive themselves of food, especially fat calories. Their skin is dry and flaky, and they have a hollowed look. It is hard to recapture lost facial volume later on. So it’s best not to lose it in the first place. Facial volume is precious. There’s a reason why injectable fillers are so popular.
So fat is good! A little extra fat doesn’t hurt when you’re older. In fact, you’ll be less wrinkled. And less likely to suffer from bone injuries. Plus, your skin needs lipids and essential fatty acids for a strong barrier function.
2. Less BONE
Hard as it may be to imagine, our skull shrinks after the age of 60. Bones shrink because we don’t make as much bone.
The human body is always making new bone. Old bone is broken down and those minerals are recycled. But with age, the rate at which we make new bone declines. So overall bone mass decreases.
A smaller skull and the same amount of skin means.. looser draping!
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Nothing. Except ensure you have sufficient Calcium and Magnesium in your diet to maintain healthy bones, and exercise to minimize bone deterioration. Weight-bearing exercises help build bone mass and increase bone density. But your skull is going to shrink no matter what. So don’t worry about it.
If you make it to a ripe old age, all you should be thinking about is how lucky you are and enjoy yourself!
3. Less COLLAGEN
Collagen is the most plentiful protein in the body. (You can read all about collagen here.) In skin, collagen fibers create a scaffolding that gives structure to skin and helps hold it up. These collagen fibers are located in the dermis layer of skin, and there are various types of it.
When there is inflammation in skin, collagen is degraded by an enzyme. This enzyme, called collagenase, is part of a group of enzymes known as MMP enzymes (MMP stands for Matrix MetalloProteinases).
The job of collagenase is to break down old or damaged collagen, so that new collagen can take its place. It’s the body’s way of responding to an injury (a wound) or damage to collagen by other means, such as UV rays or toxic substances.
When we’re young, we make collagen at the same rate as it’s broken down. But as we age, the rate slows down. Meanwhile, collagen continues to be degraded, and this rate of degradation increases over time.
The net effect is less new collagen is made, and more existing collagen is broken down.
Voila – the recipe for wrinkles and thinner skin. By the way, on the topic on thinning skin, natural aging causes skin (the dermis part) to get thinner, whereas in sun damaged skin, the stratum corneum (outermost layer of skin) gets thicker.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
First, prevent damage to collagen as much as you can. Here are 4 key ways:
- Don’t let the sun damage your skin. Protect your skin whatever way you can, including wearing sunscreen, covering up with clothing or accessories, and staying out of the sun. As we all know by now, UV radiation damages DNA and proteins. Use products with antioxidants, which will neutralize the free radicals that are generated by the sun and pollution.
- Watch your sugar intake. Excess sugar binds to collagen, rendering it dysfunctional (this process is called glycation). It also generates inflammation.
- Be careful not to inflame your skin. Inflammation is a process that leads to the release of those MMP enzymes I talked about above (this inflammatory process is long and complicated). Lots of things cause inflammation. The things within your control are NOT: over-cleansing, over-exfoliating, picking and squeezing your skin, using the wrong products for your skin, and exposing your skin to sun.
- Don’t smoke and stay away from secondhand smoke. Tobacco smoke is a massive accelerator of skin aging. It too triggers the inflammation process but generates even more free radicals than sun. These free radicals can linger around for days!
- Vitamin A retinoids (e.g. tretinoin, adapalene, retinol) can reduce wrinkle depth.
- Vitamin C will stimulate collagen production.
- Peptides will increase the signaling required to get collagen production going (and other essential skin proteins), plus biochemical or cellular activities that are important to skin function. For example, it can tell a fibroblast to make more collagen or elastin.
- There are many other ingredients that can help, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The list of new ingredients grows on and on! Unfortunately, there aren’t enough studies backing up their supposed benefits.
Third, you can improve the appearance of wrinkled skin with skincare products. The main way is by plumping it up.
Water-binding ingredients (humectants) plump up skin. They are sponges that absorb water and literally expand the volume of skin. In the dermis layer of skin, in between all the collagen and elastin fibers, is a fluid matrix made up of glycosamingoglycans (sugars that hold onto water). Water-binding ingredients found in skincare products mimic these sugars.
Hydrating skin with water-binding ingredients (the most popular one is hyaluronic acid) is the easiest way to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. But note how I used the word “appearance of”. The wrinkles are still there. You’re just superficially hiding them, by not giving them a chance to fold or crease.
More sophisticated anti-aging products have additional ingredients that prevent damage from occurring in the first place and correct damage too.
Water-binding is also the way injectable dermal fillers work too. Planting water-binding ingredients into skin fills out deep lines and replaces lost volume, making skin look more full.
You can also get other in-office or spa treatments to improve the appearance of wrinkles: lasers, IPL, chemical peels, various dermabrasion methods (which removes old skin and accelerates the formation of new skin), and injectable neurotoxins (e.g. Botox).
4. Less ELASTIN
Elastin is another protein that degrades with age. It too plays a huge role in how wrinkles form and especially in sagging.
Elastin is a stretchy protein. It can stretch itself out by 100%, and bounce right back to its original length. This resiliency allows skin to snap-back when it is pressed or pinched.
With age, skin doesn’t bounce back as much. It becomes more lax. Like an old rubber band.
When aging elastin is stretched, it doesn’t retract as much. The stretched skin stays stretched. And when you factor in gravity pulling down on this less stretchy skin, you get sagging.
Try testing your skin right now. Press the skin on your hand or thigh with an edge (like the side of a book cover or the end of a pen) – enough to dent the skin. See how long it takes for your skin to return to its normal position.
Have you ever kneeled on thick carpet and noticed little depressions on your knees where the carpet fibers were afterward? If you’re under 30, you probably haven’t, so enjoy it while it lasts. If you’re seeing those depressions, that’s elastin not retracting right away. If it’s taking longer than you remember, that’s a sign of elastin weakening.
Like collagen, elastin is attacked and broken down by an enzyme (called elastinase, another MMP enzyme) for all the same reasons that collagen is broken down. New elastin is made after enzymes break down the old elastin. But in older people, the new elastin is abnormal – thick, not as good as the original elastin. (This condition is known as elastosis.)
As if that isn’t bad enough, the rate of new elastin production is VERY slow. So old elastin dominates in aging skin.
The takeaway here? Don’t let your elastin go!
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Very little. Unlike collagen, where several ingredients can increase its production, elastin is much harder to stimulate. There are very few ingredients known to increase elastin synthesis.
There are ingredients that can inhibit the elastase enzyme (and the collagenase enzyme). These ingredients are called MMP inhibitors – they inhibit the action of these destructive enzymes. But this is a prevention strategy. It doesn’t fix damaged elastin.
So the best we can do is slow down the breakdown of elastin. Follow the same prevention strategies for collagen (above).
5. Less GAG’s
GAG’s is short for Glycosaminoglycans. These are water-binding molecules found in the dermis which give skin its plumpness and turgidity. It fills in the spaces between the collagen and elastin fibers. When you’re lacking water, there’s less volume in the dermis, and therefore less support for the outer skin. It’s like a water bed. When the water bed leaks water, the mattress (your skin) caves in.
Guess what else besides collagen and elastin goes down with age? Yes, these GAG’s. We produce less of them, and they also get damaged. Hyaluronidase is the MMP enzyme that breaks down hyaluronic acid, which is one of the GAG’s in skin.
When skin is dehydrated, it looks more wrinkled. It’s the same principle as what happens with less fat and less bone. There’s less water to maintain the volume of skin, and therefore less for skin to drape over. Excess skin manifests as wrinkles. But the moment skin is re-hydrated, it looks smoother.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Fortunately, this one is easy to solve with good habits and skincare products. We just give the skin more water.
You do that first by making sure your body is getting enough water through fluids and food. Water in your body is delievered to the dermis through the bloodstream.
And then with toners, serums, and moisturizers. Nearly all serums and moisturizers contain at least some water-binding ingredients, which plump up the skin so wrinkles become less apparent.
You can learn more about hydrating skin in various posts on this site. Here’s a starting point: How To Hydrate Skin.
6. Repeated FACIAL MOVEMENTS
When you move your face (e.g. smile, laugh, frown, wince), the muscles under your skin contract. When a muscle contracts, the skin moves with it. The muscle draws the skin into folds.
Repeated facial expressions means muscles are contracting over and over. This create wrinkles over time. Each muscle movement creates a groove in skin. Over time, a groove settles into a wrinkle when skin loses its elasticity and doesn’t bounce back after it has been moved.
- Crows feet appear on the outer corners of eyes (due to smiling or squinting). These lines tend to become longer and deeper as time goes on.
- Vertical lines appear above the mouth due to repeated pursing of the lips (e.g. from smoking, drinking from a straw). Other lines around the lips are due to smiling and chewing.
- Forehead horizontal lines are due to looking upwards or frowning.
- Glabellar lines (the eleven’s) are due to frowning.
- Nasolabial folds are due to smiling.
Wrinkles that are due to repeated, everyday motions are called expression lines.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
You can’t stop moving your face. But if it’s important to you, you might consider trying to break certain habits like squinting, frowning, or sipping straws.
Botox is a neurotoxin (botulinum toxin) that works by relaxing the muscles. Neuropeptides in skincare products, such as Argireline, SNAP-8, and SYN-AKE, perform a similar function. Both methods inhibit the contraction of muscles. When the muscles aren’t allowed to contract, skin appears smoother.
If you’re just beginning to see expression lines, starting with neuropeptides is a good way to keep them at bay. Once expression lines get to a certain depth, it’s tough to correct them with peptides. You’ll need an injectable neurotoxin at that point.
Botox is more effective for certain types of expression lines, in particular forehead and glabellar lines. Prominent nasolabial folds are better treated with fillers.
You Only Get One
Now that you know more about how wrinkles form, I hope you will be motivated to be proactive with prevention, if you’re not already. Prevention is really the best way to delay the onset of wrinkles. Don’t wait for your skin to look damaged before you start taking care of your skin.
Damage accumulates over many years. It’s gradual at first, and then one day, bam! The changes start to accelerate. In women, this acceleration begins with pre-menopause when female hormone levels decline.
It is difficult to change the innate biology of skin. Once wrinkles form, it is hard to undo them, especially when there are so many things happening inside skin that are invisible and largely beyond our control.
Treat your skin remembering it’s the only skin you’ll ever get (unless you get a skin graft later). Don’t let the sun beat it up!