Skin Wrinkles Overview

Elderly woman thinking. Focus on the first eye.
Skin wrinkles are unavoidable, but you can delay their appearance with good skin care. See more pictures of skin problems.

Elephants don't seem to mind the thousands of lines across their vast gray skin. But human beings are another story. One wrinkle can send some people into a panic. Cosmetic companies make millions trying to help people reduce wrinkles and recapture their youthful appearance.

But maintaining good skin isn't just about beauty. It is also a health issue. What damages your skin and causes wrinkles may also put you at greater risk for skin cancer. Everyone gets wrinkles as they age, but those who get too much sun will get more wrinkles sooner. In fact, 90 percent of the skin wrinkles that dermatologists treat in patients are from excessive exposure to the sun, not from the normal process of aging [source: Bernstein].


With so much at stake, taking good care of your skin is essential. Start by learning a little about how those worrisome wrinkles form in the first place.

Skin consists of two layers. The outermost layer is the epidermis, which is made up mainly of dead, hardened skin cells that protect the body from outside elements. The next layer is the dermis, which contains a kind of protein called collagen, as well as fibers that give skin its elasticity.

Wrinkles form in both the epidermis and the dermis -- and their appearance varies depending on the layer in which they form. As you age, your epidermis loses its ability to hold on to moisture, which leads to fine lines in the skin's surface. Deeper in the skin, collagen and elastin break down, which weakens the skin's support structure. At the same time, fat starts to disappear from the skin's deepest layers, which leads to sagging. Together, these effects create deeper wrinkles, like frown lines and furrows.

Read on to find out about the culprits that put those laugh lines and crow's feet on your face.


What Causes Skin Wrinkles?

If your bathroom cabinet is filled with wrinkle creams, you're not alone. Americans spend more than $12 billion each year trying to reverse the signs of aging [source: Simon]. But you'd be better off investing in a little education about your skin. Understanding what causes skin wrinkles can help you minimize them and make the right health choices.

The sun is the single most important factor in skin wrinkles, taking credit for 90 percent of the damage to your skin. Although people with lighter complexions may be most at risk, no type of skin is safe. In fact, 50 to 80 percent of skin damage caused by the sun occurs in childhood [source: Simon]. Good sun protection should be a habit developed early on, therefore, and applying sunscreen before going outdoors can help reduce wrinkles.


Another cause of premature skin aging is smoking, which damages the skin's collagen, causes inflammation, and leaves telltale lines around the mouth. Smokers are five times more likely to have wrinkled facial skin than non-smokers [source: Simon].

Air pollution, smog and toxins in the air can also wreak havoc on your skin by breaking down vitamin E, a necessary vitamin for your skin's health. Your parents also influence how you age, since genetics play a role in when you'll begin seeing crow's feet around your eyes and laugh lines around your mouth.

Finally, of course, there is the natural process of aging. As skin ages, it loses its ability to defend itself against the sun, smoking and the environment. Cells divide more slowly in older skin, making the dermis thinner and less able to hold moisture. The hypodermis, the part of our skin where fat is stored, begins to loosen. Your skin becomes less elastic, losing the ability to stretch and spring back into a firm position.

As you age, however, it's possible to bolster your skin's defenses. To find out whether sleep can help you avoid face wrinkles or actually make them worse, read on.


Preventing Skin Wrinkles

While wrinkles are inevitable for everyone, there are steps you can take to delay their appearance. Your first line of defense is to avoid too much sun exposure. That involves applying sunscreen before stepping outdoors, even when you're out doing routine activities like picking up your laundry or shopping. Choose a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of at least 15. Also, be sure to reapply your sunscreen every few hours [source: Mayo Clinic].

Keep in mind, however, that although avoiding the sun helps prevent wrinkles, it doesn't mean you should take shelter in a cave. A lack of sunlight can lead to other problems, including vitamin D deficiency. The body produces vitamin D when sunlight hits your skin. Approximately 50 to 75 percent of Americans don't get the vitamin D they need, and some experts believe that a lack of sun exposure can contribute to the problem [source: Roan]. Vitamin D deficiency leads to bone and muscle problems, and some forms of cancer. It can also contribute to diabetes, depression and high blood pressure.


Simply adopting healthy habits can also help you keep your skin looking young. Try reducing stress and avoid smoking. Exercising regularly can benefit your skin as well as your muscles. In addition, use a good skin moisturizer, and eat a diet filled with fruits and vegetables and plenty of water. Salmon, soy and cocoa are also beneficial in improving the skin's structure [source: WebMD].To keep wrinkles from forming, try sleeping on your back, and use sunglasses in bright sunlight so you won't squint.

But as time marches on, you will eventually see wrinkles beginning to form. If some of the previous steps aren't working too well, however, there are some treatments you can research that might reduce the appearance of wrinkles.


Skin Wrinkle Treatments

Until someone discovers the fountain of youth, the quest to smooth out wrinkles will continue. Fortunately, there are a variety of treatments available to reduce them. Remember, though, that there's no permanent fix for the signs of aging, and some treatments can bring distressing side effects.

Topical medicines and creams can be effective in reducing the appearance of wrinkles. Creams that contain alpha-hydroxy acids can make small improvements on the skin, but they can cause very mild irritation. Retin-A, also known as retinoic acid, is more effective at reducing fine lines, but it must be used for several months. It can also make your skin red and more sensitive to the sun.


For a more intensive treatment, you may wish to try dermal fillers or Botox. Dermal fillers are fat or collagen that doctors inject into the skin. Botox, also known as botulinum, is a toxin that relaxes the muscles and reduces frown lines. Rare side effects of Botox injections include headache, nausea and flu-like symptoms.

During skin treatments such as dermabrasion and microdermabrasion, specialists sand down the surface of the skin. The two techniques are similar, but microdermabrasion attempts to remove less surface skin. A similar treatment is a chemical peel, which uses an acid to burn the outer layer. All three of these treatments leave your skin smoother for up to several weeks, but you'll also probably experience redness and irritation.

Laser treatments can also break down the outer layer of the skin. Although it's effective, it can take a few months for the skin to recover from the treatment. A facelift can also erase lines by removing excess skin and tightening the remaining skin to smooth out lines.

To learn more about skin wrinkles and skin health, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Mature Skin." (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Botulin Toxin." (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • Baumann, Leslie. "Too Much Sugar Causes Wrinkles." Yahoo Health. (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • Bernstein, Eric. "Causes of Aging Skin?" (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • Roan, Shari. "It May be Vitamin D's Day in the Sun." Los Angeles Times. Aug. 1, 2009. (Aug. 19, 2009),0,4706112.story
  • Mayo Clinic. "Botox Injections." (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Sunscreen: Answers to your Burning Questions." (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Wrinkles." (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • Rockoff, Alan. "Wrinkles." MedicineNet. (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • Simon, Harvey. "Skin Wrinkles and Blemishes." University of Maryland Medical Center. (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • Stein, Rob. "Vitamin D Deficiency Called Major Health Risk." The Washington Post. May 12, 2004. (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Cosmetic Procedures: Wrinkles." (Aug. 19, 2009)
  • WebMD. "A Wrinkle in Time: Preventing Damage to Aging Skin." (Aug. 19, 2009)