It’s no secret that as we grow older, one of the most visible signs of aging is often the condition of our skin.
Yet, when it comes to trying to slow that process, we often focus more on trying to cover up or reverse the aging that has already occurred, instead of trying to stop it happening in the first place.
Understanding how our skin ages is an important step in trying to ensure it doesn’t age any faster than it needs to.
As human life expectancy continues to rise, remembering to look after the health of our skin just as much as the rest of our bodies, becomes ever more important.
By looking after our skin throughout our lives, and understanding its changing needs as we age, it will serve us better for longer.
Senescence, from the Latin word senescere (“to grow old”), is the scientific term for aging.
When we are our young, most of us have healthy, bright and elastic skin that heals rapidly if injured.
Later in life, visible signs of growing older include wrinkles, sagging skin and an increasing number of age spots, freckles, moles and other changes to pigmentation caused by sunlight.
As we age, the skin becomes thinner and blood vessels become visible, our pores may also increase in size.
There are changes beneath the surface too, as the collagen and elastic fibres that allow our skin to stretch start to degrade.
One of the key chemicals in our skin, hyaluronic acid, reduces over time, leaving our skin dryer and rougher. And there will be changes in skin tone, fat distribution and elasticity that mean facial contours also alter.
Older skin retains less water and becomes dryer and thinner, making it more susceptible to irritation and infection, while wounds take longer to heal.
Medical conditions and chronic skin inflammation - such as eczema and thyroid disorders - can lead to severe cases of xerosis if not treated properly.
Skin infections are particularly common among people with diabetes - a disease that becomes more prevalent with age.
What you can do
The good news is that taking preventive measures can greatly reduce the risk of premature aging or skin conditions developing into more severe health problems.
Staying out of strong sunlight, covering up and using sunscreen is top of many dermatologists' list of priorities.
Exposure to ultraviolet light ages the skin, causing wrinkles to appear earlier and increases the risk of developing melanomas and other cancers.
So from a young age everybody needs to get into the habit of always protecting their skin against harmful levels of UV.
Cutting out smoking not only reduces your chances of developing lung cancer, it is also good for the skin, as chemicals in tobacco smoke contribute to skin problems ranging from premature aging to hair loss and skin cancer.
Reducing alcohol intake, which has a dehydrating effect, is also a good idea as even at lower levels of consumption this can lead to dryer skin, while at higher levels it has been linked to skin cancer.
Skin should be actively cared for with protection in cold or windy weather, for example, by using lip balm to prevent the lips from cracking.
Daily activities such as bathing and hand washing can remove the skin’s natural moisturizers. Regular moisturization of dry skin with creams, lotions and oils after bathing, and using only mild soap on the hands all help to keep the skin hydrated.
Some people may find it advisable to use humidifiers in the winter and when the weather is dry, as this will help maintain air moisture.
Finally, before taking any prescription medication, it’s worth talking with your doctor to understand whether it could have any dermatological side effects and, if so, how to deal with them.
Beyond taking good care of your skin, the best thing you can do is appreciate the job it does and not worry too much about how it looks. Even if your skin is showing its age, it is a natural wonder that is with you throughout your life.
But if you need – or want – extra help to keep your skin in shape, a wide variety of safe treatments are available from healthcare professionals.
These can range from skin moisturizers to wrinkle fillers and botulinum toxin injections, that help reduce unwanted facial lines, to laser treatments that can tighten and tone skin or remove unwanted hair. We’re not going to look young forever, that’s just a fact of life, but it will always be important to look after our skin just as much as it looks after us.
This story is part of a series of articles aiming at illustrating how healthy skin makes a positive impact on people’s lives. It has been developed with the contribution of our scientific and medical experts and is intended for a general public.