Just like the rest of your body, your skin ages over time. But much of the visible surface damage, like dryness and lines, comes as a result of sun exposure, which you can protect yourself from. More good news: It’s possible to ease some of these signs of aging in your skin with simple prescription creams.
Aging Skin: Causes and Effects
A variety of factors are to blame for the typical signs of aging skin. These can include:
Sun exposure. “Take a woman with the skin changes that we associate with aging — wrinkles, dryness, age spots — and look at the skin under her arm. That skin is likely to be smooth and clear. The difference is sun exposure,” says Steve Feldman, MD, PhD, professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC.
Called photodamage, the effects of sun exposure on your skin are caused by ultraviolet light, and the lighter your complexion, the worse the damage is likely to be. Over time, even a small amount of unprotected sun exposure each day can cause:
- Age spots. Also called solar lentigines, or liver spots, these dark patches of skin are caused by sun damage. Bigger than freckles, age spots are more common in women with lighter complexions.
- Spidery veins. As skin ages, especially with sun exposure, you become more prone to the eruption of small blood vessels near the surface of your skin called telangiectasias.
- Leathery texture and dry scaly patches, or actinic keratoses. Aging skin does not retain moisture well. This is due partly to the loss of sweat and oil glands, but sun exposure will also make your skin dry.
Gravity and the aging body. A different process causes aging signs like the folds and furrows of sagging skin. Even before you turn 30, the production of collagen and elastin in your body begins to slow down. Collagen is the protein that gives your skin its fullness and elastin is the protein that gives it bounce and elasticity. The effects of gravity and years of making facial expressions begin to leave deep lines and furrows on your skin. (This is why your mother probably told you not to frown.) A prime example is the so-called nasolabial fold that goes from the corner of the nose to the outer corner of the lip on either side of your face. While fillers like Botox can temporarily plump a frown line, deep folds can only be removed by redraping the skin through cosmetic surgery.
The estrogen effect. The biggest difference between men and women’s skin comes from the female hormone estrogen. As women get older their estrogen levels fall, and studies show that the loss of estrogen can cause dryness, shrinking, and fine wrinkles.
Smoking. Repeated squinting from smoke helps create a network of fine lines around the eyes, and smoking may also rob skin of nutrients, notably elastin.
Aging Skin: Prevention and Treatment
Your skin does have some ability to repair itself, so no matter your age, it’s important to do everything you can to prevent further damage.
- Use sunscreen every day. If you are going to be in the sun, lather on sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. For everyday protection, choose a moisturizer and/or foundation with an SPF. “The best thing any woman can do for her skin is to use a moisturizer with sunscreen and wear a broad-brimmed hat outside,” says Dr. Feldman.
- Use a rich moisturizer. By keeping the top layer of skin moist, a moisturizer gives you a better base for makeup and prevents the dryness and flaking that can make skin look older.
- Use a prescription vitamin A cream. The prescription cream tretinoin, a vitamin A formulation, has been approved by the FDA to treat fine wrinkles, roughness, and age spots due to sun damage and aging skin. Tretinoin (Renova, Retin-A Micro) should be used sparingly to avoid irritation; you can relieve any dryness with a moisturizing cream. Because tretinoin accelerates skin turnover, you must protect new skin with sunscreen. (Over-the-counter formulas with other forms of vitamin A, like retinol, do not have the same effect as tretinoin.)
- Use alpha-hydroxy acids. In concentrations of less than 10 percent, skin care products with these naturally-occurring acids are sold over the counter in creams and lotions. Some studies show they may reduce fine wrinkles.
- Use hydroquinone. Skin bleaching products containing hydroquinone may be effective in lightening age spots.
- Expose unprotected skin to the sun. Make up for the vitamin D you’ll be missing with fortified foods or ask your doctor about supplements.
- Use tanning beds or sunlamps. These aren’t the “safe” tanning alternative they’re often touted as, and their ultraviolet light can still harm skin. One recent study from Harvard Medical School found that women who used tanning beds at least four times a year between high school and age 35 were 15 percent more likely to develop skin cancer than non-users.
- Smoke. Cigarette smoking can damage skin and cause wrinkles.
Aging Skin: At the Dermatologist
A dermatologist can help determine if you are a candidate for tretinoin or in-office treatments like deeper skin peels to remove damaged layers of skin, or laser removal of spider veins. But the most important reason for a yearly visit to your dermatologist is to do a skin cancer check.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and is mainly caused by sun exposure. Rates of malignant melanoma, its most deadly form, are increasing among women. According to theJournal of Investigative Dermatology, the rate of melanoma in U.S. women between the ages of 15 to 39 more than doubled between 1973 and 2004.
“Any time you have a change in a freckle or a mole or a suspicious new skin growth you should see a dermatologist. Watch out for skin growths that bleed and don’t heal,” urges Feldman.
Protecting against skin cancers is arguably the greatest benefit of sunscreen, after its anti-aging properties. For both these reasons, Feldman says, “Women should know that the best thing they can do for their skin is protect it from the sun.”