The causes of wrinkles are many and varied, and our ability to limit their harmful influence on the condition of our skin varies, too. Understanding how these factors influence your skin is an essential first step for anyone who wants to lessen the visible signs of aging.
A wide range of factors contribute to the different kinds of wrinkles that everybody’s skin acquires over the years. Some stem entirely from our own life choices, while others are totally beyond our control. Generally, it’s a blend of the two—we can’t entirely escape the influences that lead wrinkles to form, but we can take significant steps to minimize the threats to our skin.
Scientists like to divide up the causes of wrinkles into intrinsic—from within—and extrinsic—from outside. Although as we will see, this is not always a hard and fast distinction.
Aging is innate—our physical development is partly preprogrammed from conception through to old age. Over the years, the DNA molecules that make up our genes deteriorate, preventing more and more cells from replicating, which leads to wrinkled skin. But not everyone experiences this process at the same pace. For example, lighter-skinned people suffer more damage from sunlight and develop wrinkles more quickly. Our understanding of the complex relationship between genetics and aging is far from complete, but if your older relatives have suffered badly from wrinkles, it’s a good idea to take sensible precautions to preventing wrinkles as early as possible.
Estrogen influences not just wrinkling but skin thickness, blood flow, and hydration. The reduction in estrogen levels during menopause often represents a significant turning point in the condition of a woman’s skin; this is why women generally tend to experience more wrinkling than men. Hormone replacement therapy is considered an effective wrinkle treatment for menopausal woman, although it is also associated with a number of risks and side effects.
Free radicals are atoms or molecules (typically oxygen) with unpaired electron bonds that can set off harmful chain reactions within the body. As well as altering DNA and increasing the risk of cancer, free radicals also create cross-links between fats and proteins in the skin, damaging its structural collagen and leading to the formation of wrinkles.
Free radical intake is increased by exposure to UV light and environmental pollutants; upping your intake of natural antioxidants offers some defense from the harm they cause. But because free radicals are also produced within the body as part of natural metabolic processes, the damage they do—known as oxidative stress—cannot be completely avoided.
Another wrinkle-inducing natural process is based around the sugar glucose, an essential cellular fuel. In the same way that sugar causes meat to brown when cooked at a high heat, proteins such as the collagen in our skin are transformed (albeit much more slowly) when exposed to high levels of glucose. Known as glycation, this process results in the skin’s collagen fibers growing rigid and brittle, causing wrinkles to emerge.
The transformed proteins, or AGEs (advanced glycation end products), themselves damage the skin in a number of ways. And they’re self-perpetuating, just like free radicals. While glycation cannot be completely avoided, eating a diet low in sugars and carbohydrates has significant anti-aging benefits.
By far the single most significant cause of wrinkles, the UV radiation in sunlight directly damages the framework of collagen and elastin that gives the skin its strength and elasticity. Enzymes are produced to fix the damage, but the repairs are never perfect, with collagen fibers forming an uneven matrix of solar scars that eventually lead to wrinkling. The process also results in the creation of free radicals that go on and do further damage.
All exposure to sunlight (or UV tanning beds) that results in a darkening or reddening of the skin constitutes damage. Frequent, sunscreen-free exposure to UV radiation can have serious effects over the long-term. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid the sun completely—after all, sunlight is a vital source of vitamin D. You should, however, wear sunscreen, and limit the time you spend in the sun when not wearing sunscreen to just a few minutes.
It should be no surprise by now that smoking is unhealthy, but it’s only just becoming clear how badly cigarettes can affect the appearance of the skin. Cigarette smoke contains many hundreds of active ingredients—some trigger enzymes that damage collagen and elastin within the skin. Other ingredients are harmful free radicals in their own right, and smoking may also reduce levels of vitamin A—an antioxidant that protects against free-radical damage. What’s more, smoking significantly reduces blood flow within the skin, reducing the supply of nutrients and oxygen that the skin needs to repair itself, as well as causing the characteristically dull skin tone of ‘smoker’s face’.
The face is not static. As we live our lives, repeated movements and pressures make their mark. For instance, if you are accustomed to sleeping in the same position every night, try mixing it up a bit—as your skin loses strength and springiness with age, the nightly pressure of your pillow can result in permanent creases.
We create wrinkles during our waking hours, too. Dynamic expression lines, which tend to form around the areas of facial expression at the eyes, forehead and around the mouth. Over the years, using our facial muscles to smile, frown and laugh leaves residual tension that, as our skin loses elasticity, can engrave expression lines onto the face. Without the right glasses or contact lenses, poor eyesight can take its toll, as squinting is known to worsen wrinkles around the eyes.
Understanding how wrinkles are caused is the first step towards preventing them. Even though some of the causes are unavoidable, knowledge is still the best preparation for defending against threats to the condition of your skin, and selecting the best wrinkle treatments to leave your skin looking smoother and more youthful.