Unfortunately over time skin loses its fresh, youthful look. Sun damage, unhealthy lifestyle and the pesky combination of time and gravity can take its toll on the look of skin.
To understand why this happens, it can first help to understand a little more about the anatomy of the skin.
On this page
- Why do we have skin?
- What is skin made of?
- Does skin anatomy change over time?
- Ageing and skin health
Why do we have skin?
If, like so many of us, all your knowledge of human biology dissolved the moment you walked out of the exam hall on the last day of school, don't worry. It's simple.
The purpose of skin is to protect our innards from light, cold, heat, injury and infection. It also contains millions of receptors that allow us to process 'touch' sensations like texture and temperature.
Amazingly, the skin is the biggest organ in the body. Experts estimate that if you cut it all off and laid it flat on the ground, it would cover an area measuring between 18 and 20sq ft. That's the size of a large living room.
What is skin made of?
Skin is made up of thee different layers:
1. The epidermis
The epidermis is the outer layer of the skin: the part that we can see. This layer contains a protein known as keratin (the same substance hair and nails are made out of). The main function of the epidermis is to store melanin, which determines the colour of a person's skin. The higher the melanin content, the darker the skin will appear.
Because keratin is water-soluble, the epidermis also acts as the body's 'tarpaulin' - a waterproof covering protecting the vulnerable inner organs from water saturation.
2. The dermis
The dermis layer, 10-20 times thicker than the epidermis, is essentially the engine room of the skin. It contains everything the skin needs to function: blood vessels, lymph vessels, sweat glands and hair follicles. These are all held together by tough connective tissue made up of 70% collagen and 30% elastin. Collagen gives the skin its resistance to traction and strain and elastin gives skin its stretchy quality.
3. The hypodermis
The hypodermis is the deepest and thickest layer of the skin, bonding the upper layers to the underlying tissue with a fibrous lining of collagen and elastin proteins. The hypodermis consists mostly of fat-storing cells, which exist as an emergency energy store for the rest of the body when reserves run low. The two main functions of the hypodermis, otherwise known as the subcutaneous tissue, are:
a) to regulate the body's temperature
b) to protect the vital organs from impact by acting as a cushioning 'shock absorber'.
Does skin anatomy change over time?
Yes, as we grow older the skin's production processes begin to slow down, causing the anatomy of the skin to change over time. Although these anatomical changes happen naturally to all of us, how obvious they are, and how quickly they appear, depends largely on the environment we live in and the lifestyles we choose to lead.
Although much of the ageing process is genetic, studies involving identical twins have shown that two people with exactly the same genetic make-up can, in old age, grow to look completely different. This essentially means that every wrinkle, mole, blemish and scar you have is a product of the person you are and the life you've led. Consider the following:
What kind of person are you? Are you a happy person who loves to laugh and please people? If so, you're far more likely to develop laughter lines than a person who feels perpetually moody or angry. Unhappy people are more likely to develop deep wrinkles and furrows in their foreheads because they probably spent more time frowning and grimacing.
Your hobbies could have a visible effect on the look of your skin as you get older. For example, a person who spends their whole life sailing across the world under the glare of the sun is more likely to have older-looking skin than a person who dedicates their life to building computer software in their basement.
Of course, that's not to say that people with outdoor hobbies will always have older-looking skin than people with indoor hobbies. There are hundreds of other factors to take into account, too. For instance - although the software developer may have avoided sun damage, a lack of vitamin D and exercise could instead make the skin pallid, dry and malnourished - all factors that also contribute to premature ageing. The trick is to achieve a healthy balance by varying your hobbies and activities throughout life.
Smoking and drinking are of course detrimental to skin health and smokers are thought to look around 2.5 years older than people of the same age who don't smoke.
Your favourite foods
Other than your body's fat content, your skin is one of the biggest giveaways of a bad diet. People who eat too much sugar, fat, salt and refined carbohydrate are more likely to develop spots and dry, flaky, dull skin. However, some skin conditions, like acne, are genetic and therefore unlikely to be effected very much by diet.
Skip down this page to Lifestyle and skin health to learn more.
Ageing and skin health
Age is one of the biggest determiners of skin health. Imagine you're looking at an 11-year-old and an 80-year-old standing together. Immediately you'll notice huge differences in the appearance of each individual's skin. The child is likely to have:
- smooth, firm skin
- full-looking cheeks and firm facial structure
- a clear, rosy complexion.
Whereas the older person is likely to have:
- deep lines and wrinkles - especially around the eyes and mouth
- yellowy, inconsistent colourings
- thin, papery skin - almost transparent-looking
- age spots (liver spots) - patches of discoloured skin
- sagging skin around the jaw-line and neck
- visible veins and broken blood-vessels, especially on the nose, which can often become a purple-red colour.
These differences occur over time because of certain anatomical changes in the skin:
1. Changes to the hypodermis (deepest level of the skin)
The fatty hypodermis layer provides padding, which gives the face and body the bulk of its physical structure and explains why young people tend to have fuller-looking cheeks. The size of a person's hypodermis layer depends on their age, sex and health. The hypodermis layer tends to be around 8% thicker on females than it is on males. As we get older the distribution of fat in the hypodermis changes and the volume decreases. This results in the 'sallow' look associated with old age, which encompasses hollow cheeks, bony feet and spindly hands. However, subcutaneous fat around the thighs, waist and abdomen tends to increase as we age.
2. Changes to the dermis (middle layer of the skin)
Reserves of collagen and elastin (the proteins that give skin its bouncy, firm feel) start to deplete with age at a rate of around 2% a year. The loss of structure in the dermis results in skin rigidity and decreased elasticity. You can test your skin's elasticity by pinching the back of your hand. Young skin will spring back immediately, whereas older skin will take a lot longer to sink back to its original form.
3. Changes in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin)
This layer contains melanin, the substance that controls the skin's pigment. The amount of melanin present in the epidermis decreases at a rate of 2-8% every 10 years, resulting in uneven pigmentation in elderly skin. The production of sebum, the oily substance that keeps the skin hydrated and the hair shiny, also begins to deplete with age, which can result in dry-looking skin and hair.
4. Changes to the skin's thickness
At the age of 20, skin ceases to grow any thicker. After that, it becomes progressively thinner - a process that speeds up with age. Skin thinness is most pronounced in areas we leave exposed to the sun and elements - i.e. the face, neck, hands, forearms and chest. Skin thickness decreases faster in women than it does in men.
The physical effects of ageing can differ from person to person depending on a number of factors, including their genetics and the way they choose to live their lives.
Environment and skin health
While your lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, brain and other vital organs sit snug and warm inside your body, encased in a protective framework of bone and muscle and layers of cushioning fat, your skin is out there, exposed to the elements, taking the full brunt of life.
The problem with being soft and squidgy in a world full of hard edges, hazardous substances, dangerous microbes and harmful rays, is that the environment can quickly and easily leave its mark on the skin in the form of scars, moles, blemishes, dry patches and wrinkles.
Some environments damage the skin more than others, including:
Harmful UV rays can trigger premature signs of ageing and dramatically change the appearance of skin. One study involving identical twins found that individuals who spent more time in the sun than their siblings looked noticeably older6. UV rays can cause:
- pigment changes
- exposed blood vessels
- easy bruising
- skin tearing
- fine wrinkles
- skin cancer.
One way to avoid the ageing effects of sun damage is to wear sun-cream with SPF15 (although 30 is better) everyday. Lots of good moisturiser companies incorporate low-factor sun-cream into their formulas.
When sitting in direct sunlight, cover up with protective clothing like sunglasses, brimmed hats and t-shirts - studies show that the skin we expose regularly to the sunlight, such as our face, forearms, neck and hands, tends to age a lot faster than the unexposed skin on, say, our back, stomach and thighs.
After spending just one day travelling around a large city, skin can take on an oily, slightly gritty feel. This is because city air is full of toxins, dirt and dust, which clogs up pores and causes:
- skin dullness
- skin allergies
- blood vessel damage.
Free radicals also present in polluted air can reduce the supply of oxygen to the skin cells. With limited oxygen, the skin's processes begin to slow down and the production of collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm and supple, begins to deplete. This is thought to contribute to:
- fine lines
- dry patches
- rough skin.
For many of us, avoiding pollution is impossible. 90.1% of the UK population currently live in urban areas, with an expected 2% rise over the next 20 years.
However, there are certain measures we can take to protect our skin from pollution (aside from leading greener lifestyles), including:
- Carry moisturising face wipes around with you so you can cleanse your skin regularly throughout the day, whether you're on a train or in a meeting at work.
- Exfoliate twice a week to remove all dead skin that could clog up your pores.
- Use moisturiser every day to prevent your skin from drying out.
- Drink plenty of water (filtered) to hydrate the skin and increase cell production.
- Use products that contain antioxidants.
As well as the environment you live in, the lifestyle choices you make can effect the health and appearance of your skin. Some lifestyle choices are thought to increase the likelihood of skin damage and some are thought to reduce it.
As well as causing cancer and a whole host of nasty respiratory diseases, smoking can cause extensive damage to the skin.
Smoking limits the body's ability to absorb oxygen, which effects the healthy production of skin cells and proteins and can cause:
- dry, dull skin
- hundreds of tiny lines
- yellowish pallor
- uneven skin tone
- sagging skin
- sagging breasts and 'bingo wings' (hanging arm skin)
- deep lines around the lips (caused by inhaling smoke)
- age spots
- stained fingers and nails
- psoriasis - thick, scaly skin.
As well as making you look like a bleary-eyed wreck the morning after, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol could have detrimental long-term effects on the appearance of your skin. Alcohol is a diuretic, draining the body of moisture. Dehydration deprives the skin of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to look healthy and glowing. The long-term effects of alcohol consumption on the skin include:
- Rosacea - a skin disorder that starts with a tendency to blush and can eventually lead to facial disfigurement.
- Dilated blood cells - these give the skin a flushed, red look, eventually causing red bumps and pus spots.
- Bloated, puffy face - caused by a build up of toxins.
- Cellulite (bumpy, 'orange-peel' skin - most commonly found on the buttocks, thighs and tummy area).
- Smelly sweat.
To avoid skin damage from alcohol, you are advised to drink no more than:
- women: 2-3 units a day (175ml glass of wine)
- men: 3-4 units a day (pint and 1/2 of beer).
Stress and depression
One U.S study found that women who experienced distress over a divorce looked on average 2 years older than their married or widowed twin siblings.
However, researchers aren't sure if premature ageing is a result of distress itself, or of the anti-depressants that are commonly used to treat it.
People who lead physical lifestyles tend to stave off the signs of ageing longer than those who lead sedentary lifestyles.
Exercise helps the skin by:
- Boosting circulation - pushing oxygenated blood to the surface improves skin tone and encourages a healthy glow. It also feeds the dermis with vital nutrients and vitamins to increase the efficiency of the skin's processes.
- Making the body sweat - sweat washes through the skin's pores and cleanses the body of spot and blemish-causing toxins.
- Producing 'feel good' hormones like serotonin reduces feelings of stress, an emotional state known to contribute to skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. In addition, people who feel happier in life are probably less likely to frown and therefore less likely to develop deep lines and creases in their foreheads.
People who live healthy, hygienic lifestyles with regular grooming rituals often have better-looking skin than those who neglect theirs. It's important to scrub dead skin off regularly, wash daily to prevent pores from becoming clogged with dirt, and keep skin moisturised to prevent dryness and dehydration.
As well as ageing and natural wear and tear, skin conditions can occur at any age to any skin type. Some of the most common skin conditions include:
Most people will suffer from acne at some point in their lives. Acne (clusters of spots) is most prevalent on the face, back and chest and can range from very mild to very severe. Very severe acne can last for many years and even produce deep scarring.
Acne has been linked to hormonal changes during adolescence and is thought to be caused by overactive sebaceous glands. Contrary to common belief, there is no evidence to suggest that acne has anything to do with poor hygiene or diet.
Dermatologists can be called in to help treat particularly severe acne - especially when the skin develops boils or cysts that need specialist treatment.
Psoriasis is a condition that causes red, scabby, scaly patches to appear all over the body. The condition effects around 2% of the population and occurs as a result of a build up of immature skin cells. Psoriasis occurs most commonly on the elbows, knees, lower back and scalp and can cause an itching or burning sensation.
For some people, psoriasis is a minor irritation but for others, it can severely impact the quality of their life. It is a chronic condition and often goes through a cycle of flaring up and calming down. Psoriasis is not infectious.
Rocacea is a skin condition most common in fair-skinned females between the ages of 30 and 5010. It's characterised by the regular inflaming of the skin on the face and can even lead to a thickening of the skin resulting in facial disfigurement.
Episodes can be triggered by stress, hot drinks, cold weather, certain types of food and exposure to sunlight. Rosacea can be treated by a dermatologist with creams, antibiotics and dietary advice.
Find out about different Dermatological Treatments to treat ageing, sun-damage and skin conditions.