Aging of the skin: How the skin changes with age

Older woman and young girl side by side, show the aging of skin

No matter what age you are, you probably have nothing against young-looking, firm, healthy and plump skin. The question is - how do you achieve this goal? With anti-aging creams, sun protection or the right diet? In order to understand with which care you can support your skin, it is important to understand the aging process. Because a more beautiful skin appearance can require different measures depending on the stage of life.

This has something to do with the physical changes that the aging process brings. This process is very individual and depends on both genetically predetermined factors and our external circumstances - more on that in a moment. First, let's look at the specifics of young skin.

The young skin

When our skin sees the light of day, it is far from being at full capacity: Baby skin is 20 to 30 percent thinner than adult skin. This is particularly true of the protective horny layer. The protective acid mantle is also not yet fully developed - this makes baby skin much more sensitive. In particular, it wants to be well protected from the sun's rays, because the skin completely lacks its own protective shield against the sun during this first stage of life. At around 4 years of age, the skin is a little more mature, but still susceptible to UV rays and external stimuli. During childhood, one basically assumes dry and sensitive skin. 

It is not until the age of 12 that children's skin resembles that of an adult in terms of structure and function. But by then our largest organ is already in the midst of another upheaval: from the age of 10 to 11, the body increasingly secretes androgens, which are male sex hormones. Girls also produce androgens, only slightly less than boys. They ensure that the sebaceous glands in the dermis really turn on. Sebum, or sebum, is produced everywhere on the skin. The result: oily skin. That's why so many teenagers suffer from blemished skin or even acne (especially on the face). But again, not all teenage skin develops acne per se. Adolescents whose genetic heritage provides for dry skin do secrete more sebum in this phase of life, but still suffer little from impurities. However, greasy hair and an oily, shiny film on the skin are also among the unattractive effects of excessive sebum production. 

In these storm-and-pressure times, the skin needs gentle and regular cleansing to keep the pores clean. Over time, the body's sebum production regulates itself in the best case. Nevertheless, oily skin - or acne - accompanies some people throughout their lives. 

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How the skin ages from the inside

The adult skin ages incessantly, we have to face this reality. Your skin does not care a bit about the exact division into decades, as you know it from the cosmetics shelf. It ages persistently and continuously at its own, individual pace. That's why the "typical skin over 40" is not much more than a well-kept myth of the industry. The individual skin situation is much more diverse and complicated. It results from a combination of natural processes in the body, genetic heritage and external factors that we sometimes have more and sometimes less control over. So let's take a closer look at the most important intrinsic aspects that are inevitably part of this mix. They are also called "intrinsic skin aging":

Functions of hyaluronic acid: from joints to connective tissue

Hyaluronan is found in the body wherever water needs to be stored, for example in connective tissue and in the elastic cartilage substance. In addition, hyaluron makes up the largest part of the natural joint fluid: Hyaluronic acid increases the viscosity of synovial fluid, thereby increasing its ability to lubricate, cushion and filter. So hyaluronic acid is not just part of the connective tissue, we need it to keep our joints working smoothly.

20 to 30 years: The first signs and changes

No sooner have we left our plump youth behind us than age creeps up on our skin from behind. It may not yet be visible on our faces, but between 20 and 30 the first aging processes begin: The dermis loses collagen and thus loses its elasticity and resilience. Cell division slows down and with it skin renewal. At the same time, the fatty tissue in the subcutis becomes thinner. Both have visible consequences: Veins increasingly show through, and the first small wrinkles around the mouth and eyes become noticeable. 

In this phase of life, our skin needs one thing above all: effective sun protection to prevent long-term damage from UV rays. This requires discipline and foresight, because the sun sins from this phase of life often take revenge decades later. 

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30 to 50 years: Age shows in the face 

In the following two decades, the skin's maturation process gains speed and turns out to be a true chain reaction. The connective tissue becomes weaker and the depth of wrinkles increases slowly but steadily. The decreasing elasticity in turn causes the pore walls to wear out, making the pores appear larger. In younger years, excessive sebum production was more likely to be responsible for this. But at this stage of life, the sebum glands already go into semi-retirement; the skin becomes less oily and thus also more sensitive. 

Because the skin barrier now lacks lipids, the moisture stored in deeper skin layers can escape more quickly. The result: moisture loss. All in all, the skin gradually becomes thinner, less moisturized, more sensitive, and tends to redden and feel taut, even itchy. In addition, the skin suffers particularly in dry air or extreme cold. 

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Since men's skin as a whole is somewhat thicker than women's skin and testosterone ensures more sebum and thus less moisture loss, skin aging is not as noticeable in many men in this phase of life as it is in women - assuming proper basic care. 

On the other hand, daily wet or dry shaving stresses the male facial skin, which can lead to irritation and redness. Speaking of stress, there is unfortunately also more than enough of this beauty killer in this phase of life. Because between career and kids, apartment hunting and world travel, the skin quickly falls by the wayside - and longs for beauty sleep. 

40 to 60 years: The skin needs moisture 

At some point, women approach the menopause with firm steps. The hormone balance is sometimes subject to strong fluctuations, especially because the body reduces the production of the female sex hormone estrogen. As a result, typical complaints such as hot flashes, sleep disturbances, palpitations, dizziness or mood swings occur. Our skin is not left unscathed either - it becomes increasingly thinner and its blood circulation deteriorates. It is no longer able to defend itself against inflammatory processes at the cellular level as well as it did in younger years. The lack of estrogen proves to be an additional challenge for the skin's moisture - all together, this makes the skin appear paler and duller. Its susceptibility to irritation or eczema increases. The aging process shows itself with the first wrinkles or even age spots. 

60+ years: less resilience, more wrinkles

Even when we slowly retire, the aging process of the skin progresses briskly: the first wrinkles have turned into folds in the last third of life. Intensive sunbathing now leaves its mark in the form of age spots and sagging skin. Under the surface of the skin, too, many things look different: The epidermis and dermis are much thinner than they were when we were in our twenties. The sebaceous glands have traded in their hyperactivity from youth for sluggishness. Blood circulation is reduced, and even the hard-working Langerhans cells can no longer perform their important immune function as well. 

In addition, the pH value on the skin surface changes - and this impairs the function of the acid mantle. Germs can penetrate the skin barrier much more easily in old age. This makes the skin more susceptible to infections. It is not uncommon for "dormant infections" such as shingles or herpes to break out again in this phase of life. Overall, the resistance to external factors such as dry air, stress or an unhealthy diet decreases. Certain medications can put additional strain on the skin. And the sun? It is more dangerous than ever. 

The biggest problem of mature skin is the lack of moisture, which can even cause itching. In addition, skin irritations occur more frequently. Dry aging skin ideally needs regular and rich skin care, which at the same time is as low in irritants as possible. 

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The two sides of skin aging 

The previously described intrinsic aging processes inside the skin all have to do with "becoming less": Less cell division, supporting tissue, blood flow, moisture. The sum of these natural factors is called intrinsic or endogenous skin aging. It is hardwired into our genes and initially happens regardless of lifestyle. So to a certain extent, rosy and smooth skin is simply a matter of predisposition. 

The good news is that researchers into aging currently believe that this natural aging of the skin accounts for only 20 to 30 percent of the overall aging process, especially since it is more responsible for the subtle signs of aging skin: a lack of elasticity and wrinkles. So we can have a big influence on how our skin changes over the years through our lifestyle, diet and avoidance of harmful environmental factors, and thus prevent wrinkles, at least to some extent. Science summarizes these external influencing factors under the term extrinsic or exogenous skin aging. They are responsible for the real troublemakers, i.e. deep wrinkles and blotchy skin. 

Extrinsic skin aging 

Extrinsic skin aging has three main culprits: sunlight, smoking, and poor eating and drinking habits. The undisputed leader of this ominous trio is the sun. Excessive UV radiation is by far the greatest enemy of smooth and healthy skin because it literally unleashes destructive forces in the cell: free radicals. Free radicals are molecular fragments and rather choleric contemporaries. They carry a single, unpaired electron - from their point of view, an untenable condition. In their search for a new bonding partner, the chemically extremely reactive radicals literally go berserk: When they encounter an atom, they immediately snatch an electron from it, setting off a chain reaction: Their collision with the atom causes it to become a free radical itself. To make matters worse, they cause further damage in the process. They shoot holes in the cell membrane, alter the genetic material, disrupt metabolic processes, destroy proteins and much more. All in all, this rampage is called oxidative stress. And it is precisely this stress that is the problem: inflammations, diseases, mutations - they all start with an excess of stressed or damaged cells. 

The free radical is missing a single electron. This sounds insignificant, but it leads to a cell-damaging chain reaction: It tries to snatch one from the balanced atom - if it loses the atom, it becomes a free radical itself. Antioxidants have an electron surplus, they can donate one to the free radical and thus neutralize it without getting out of balance themselves.

To a certain extent, our organism is well armed against free radicals. It has to be, because it constantly produces these troublemakers itself. They are part of the normal metabolism, just like the body's own interceptors, the so-called antioxidants. These have a surplus of electrons and donate one to the free radicals, without thereby taking damage themselves. In this way, the free radicals are deprived of their force, so that they can be metabolized normally. 

Antioxidants are an essential building block of effective skin care. These include vitamins A, C and E, but also the co-enzyme Q10, resveratrol as well as various minerals, plant extracts and trace elements. It becomes problematic when two of the villains mentioned at the beginning come into play: Because both the sun and cigarette smoke burden our organism with a flood of additional free radicals, each in their own way. UV radiation generates oxidative stress in the cell and accelerates the above-mentioned chain reaction. UV-A radiation is primarily responsible for visible premature skin aging, since about half of it penetrates deep into the dermis. UVB radiation does not reach as deep, but is more insidious because it damages cell DNA, which promotes the development of skin cancer. A separate chapter, starting on page 51, is devoted to both the bad and the good sides of the sun.

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Smoking promotes wrinkles

Smoking is a true cellular bully: With every puff of the cigarette we inhale around 100 trillion free radicals. That many grains of rice would easily be enough to cover the entire Federal Republic of Germany! Antioxidants are no longer effective against so much oxidative stress. In addition, nicotine, which is also contained in cigarette smoke, reduces the blood flow to the skin and thus slows down its metabolic processes. This has consequences: In the short term, the skin looks sallow and gray. In the long term, connective and supporting tissue is broken down, and cell decay is accelerated more and more. This is why the skin of smokers ages demonstrably faster and more severely. Quitting smoking (or even better: not starting in the first place) is one of the most effective anti-aging measures.

And we also have another skin enemy in our hands - or better not: alcohol. Consumed in excess, it has a direct negative effect on the epidermis and horny layer, disrupting the function of the sebaceous glands, sweat glands and vessels. In addition, alcohol deprives the skin of water and nutrients. Last but not least: Through our food intake, we influence every day how much (and how fast) our skin ages. This is because the nutrients and toxins that we supply to our body or withhold from it are directly involved in the metabolic processes in the skin - for better or for worse.

Anti Aging: We can do more against wrinkles than we think. After all, 70-80 percent of skin aging is influenced by external factors.

The inner clock of the skin

Time is not only responsible for skin aging in the long run. The daily biorhythm also plays a crucial role for our skin. Scientists at the Biomedical Research Center in Barcelona have been able to demonstrate that our inner biological clock precisely controls the regeneration of skin cells. Put simply, it knows pretty much exactly what time it is at any given moment and adjusts important skin processes accordingly. 

The team led by Professor Salvador Aznar Benitah found that our skin stem cells have a number of genes that control the processes in the skin and adapt their activity to the time of day and its environmental conditions. That skin stem cells can at least roughly distinguish between day and night has been known for some time the study showed that our "inner skin clock" ticks even more accurately. In this way, the stem cells can react with amazing precision to pathogens or UV light and protect themselves accordingly. In contrast, in the evening and at night they increase the formation of new horny cells and thus repair the damage of the day. 

The study also showed that disruption of these internal processes profoundly affects the proper function of stem cells, leading to accelerated tissue aging and a possible predisposition to skin cancer.