What Happens to Skin As We Age? A "Behind-The-Cells" Look at Skin Aging

Though I’m not a Marvel fan, Avengers: Endgame surprisingly sucked me in. Not into the plot or jokes or action sequences, but into Paul Rudd’s famously youthful face on the big screen. What better way to examine wrinkles (or lack thereof) than when they’re 30-feet high? (1)

Spoiler: His skin looked pretty average to me.

Our fascination with aging skin is understandable. It’s a visible manifestation of time—or more morbidly and likely the real reason we’re so obsessed, a constant reminder that we’re approaching death.

Our Skin Cells Shed Slower

Actually, our cells are constantly dying. Ideally and when we’re younger, new cells are created in balance with those that die in the natural process of cell renewal. Skin cells in the epidermis regenerate with a turnover time of 10–30 days, as old ones are shed and new ones come to the surface. The problem with skin as we age is that cell renewal slows—on all layers of the skin: epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Cells are lost at a faster rate than they’re replaced, if they’re replaced at all. (2)

Our Collagen Decreases

Among the hallmarks of aging are loss of volume and thinner skin. That’s because there are actually less cells there! Less fat cells in the subcutaneous tissues leads to hollowing out, like in the cheeks and under the eyes. Fibroblasts in the dermis—the cells that synthesize collagen and elastin—both decrease in number and become less efficient. After 20, we produce about 1% less collagen per year. Plus, existing collagen and elastin breaks down.That means less connective tissue with less structural integrity, aka thin skin that wrinkles and sags. (3) (4)

Our Skin Retains Less Water

It doesn’t help that hyaluronic acid decreases and oil glands slow down production too, meaning skin retains less water and becomes drier. The moisture barrier becomes less effective, making skin more susceptible to damage, irritation, and infection. This also makes skin less plump and wrinkles more visible.

So let’s Focus On What We Can Control

This all sounds scary, but skin aging is natural and inevitable. Intrinsic aging, that which occurs naturally over a lifetime regardless of outside factors, is as unavoidable as the passing of time itself. It’s what our bodies are meant to do, and we should be thankful for the opportunity to age.

In honor of our bodies, we can instead focus on skin health that in turn benefits its appearance. We can avoid damage to the cells we have by mitigating exposure to the sun, pollution, and tobacco. We can encourage healthy cellular function with antioxidants, vitamin C, and lots of hydration. We can also help our bodies stimulate collagen production (read the full guide to collagen and skincare here) and to incorporate a diet that helps ward off the signs of aging (guide to that, here). And we can smile knowing that any marks left behind are well worth it. (I’m pretty sure that’s Paul Rudd’s secret.)

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