You probably think that aging skin problems only include those unwanted wrinkles and discolorations. But skin deterioration is more than just a cosmetic issue.
Many don’t realize it, but pound for pound the skin is actually the body’s largest organ. The skin of an average adult covers a total surface area of about 20 square feet!
While many tend to think of the skin as a singular unit, it actually consists of three distinct layers that work together perfectly to maintain optimal function. These layers are the epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis.
The epidermis is the thin outer layer of the skin that acts as a ‘protective coat’ for the body. It regenerates easily after injury, keeps essential fluids and moisture inside the body, and protects the underlying tissues from chemical corrosion and environmental damage.
The dermis is the second layer of the skin, sitting just below the epidermis. The dermis is quite thick and fibrous in nature. It gives the skin strength and structure and houses the skin’s blood vessels, nerves, hair follicles, and glands.
Lastly, we have the hypodermis (which is also commonly known as the ‘subcutaneous layer’). The hypodermis sits directly below the dermis and is made up of almost entirely connective and fatty tissue. While its physiological functions are less numerous than those of either the dermis or the epidermis, they are still important. The hypodermis provides the body with padding and insulation, which helps protect your organs and regulates your body temperature.
In addition to the roles of the individual layers of the skin, intact skin (with all three layers) plays a number of unique roles in the human body, as well. These include:
- Assisting in the removal of toxic substances
- Protecting the body against harmful microorganisms
- Providing sensory information (touch, temperature, pain) to the body’s central nervous system
- Producing vitamin D
Just a quick glance at this list of functions and it should quickly become apparent just how important your skin really is!
Looking a little more closely, this list of functions also provides you with hints as to why the skin is so prone to aging.
Why is Skin So Vulnerable to the Aging Process?
If you notice in the list above, the skin is responsible for protecting you from all kinds of outside factors: microorganisms, chemicals, toxins, and environmental stressors (such as UV light from the sun, air pollution, and reactive oxygen species).
Unfortunately for your skin, many of these factors act as mutagens. That means they can damage your DNA.
Since there is no buffer at all to protect your skin (your skin is absolutely your first point of contact with the outside world!), it actually takes quite the beating on a day-to-day basis. As a result of this constant onslaught of mutagens, your skin experiences a steady stream of DNA damage.
Over time, this DNA damage can cause minor mutations in the cells of the skin. Eventually, this can lead to the reduced health and function of those cells and numerous aging skin problems.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take too long for this to turn into a vicious cycle, driving skin aging. See, one of the skin’s jobs is to detect and remove malfunctioning skin cells. So, when the skin isn’t working optimally, malfunctioning cells can buildup in the skin. This causes the skin’s ability to function to progressively deteriorate as you age.
Why Do I Get Wrinkles as I Age?
The characteristic skin wrinkles that appear during aging come from the mutation and loss of function of two specific skin proteins: collagen and elastin.
Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in the entire body. It is quite rigid and fibrous in nature, so the body uses it to provide structure and rigidity to tissues, including the skin. Collagen helps prevent aging skin problems by making it durable and resistant to change.
Elastin, on the other hand, is quite malleable and elastic in nature. It gives skin its ability to move and change shape without tearing or becoming damaged.
As you age (and subsequently experience mutations in your skin cells), you experience gradual, natural decrease in the function of these proteins – this is known as intrinsic aging.
Intrinsic aging causes a decline in collagen production, a breakdown of elastin proteins, and a decrease in the skin’s ability to remain hydrated. The consequence of these three key aspects of intrinsic aging is that the skin becomes thin, dry, brittle and loose as you get older, allowing wrinkles to form.
The effects of intrinsic aging can be made worse by exposure to external factors (so-called ‘extrinsic aging’). Extrinsic aging is driven mostly by UV light from the sun.
UV light is able to penetrate the skin and reduce the ability of elastin molecules, to ‘stick’ to one another. This, naturally, makes the skin even looser and less elastic, allowing wrinkles to form even faster.
Why Does My Skin Change Color as I Age?
While we are on the topic of UV rays, it also seems appropriate to touch the changes in skin color that often occur when you get older. Discoloration is one of the most common aging skin problems. You see, when the skin is exposed to UV light, its cells increase their production of a compound called melanin.
Melanin is a pigment that absorbs harmful UV rays, protecting your skin (and, importantly, your skin’s DNA) from sun damage. You’re probably actually pretty familiar with melanin. It’s responsible for the freckles and suntan you get in the summer after spending some time in the sunshine.
Unfortunately, if areas of skin consistently see sunshine over many years, the cells in the area can actually make so much melanin that the pigment starts ‘clumping’, leaving large areas of discolored skin (commonly known as ‘age spots’, or ‘sun spots’).
What Happens to My Skin’s Ability to Heal as I Age?
We already know that as we age, the skin loses its elastin and collagen. While this most obviously causes declines in skin rigidity and structure, it also impacts the skin’s ability to heal wounds.
You see, these same components slowly ‘come apart’ as we age (think of a hand-stitched sweater becoming old and loose… thanks, Grandma). These fraying structures make it much more difficult to repair the skin (‘knit’ it back together into its original state) after physical damage.
To make things worse, aging skin not only has less collagen and elastin available, it also has fewer epidermal stem cells. These cells, normally found resting in the dermis of the skin, produce new skin cells. This is, of course, a crucial step in normal wound healing!
Unfortunately, the slowed wound healing driven by less collagen, elastin and stem cells significantly increases your risk of infection, as the wound remains open and susceptible to invasion for much longer.
It also makes it more likely that the skin will scar after an injury. This is because the skin resorts to using scar tissue to fill the large gaps between collagen and elastin molecules in an attempt to close up the wound faster.
Why Does Skin Cancer Become More Common as We Age?
Now, as we already know, the skin is exposed to an incredible number of mutagens over our lifetimes.
We also know that these same mutagens can cause cells to malfunction, leading to reductions in skin quality. Interestingly, these same malfunctioning cells can become cancerous. This occurs when their DNA is altered to such a degree that they begin to replicate uncontrollably.
While you can read about the process that leads to the increased risk of cancer as you age in much greater detail in this article, it is important to touch on it, briefly, here, as well.
Basically, your increased risk of skin cancer when you get older is a simple statistic problem. As the years pass and your skin is exposed to more and more mutagens, having skin cells with mutations becomes increasingly common. By sheer probability, the likelihood that of one of those mutated cells is cancerous increases as more and more of them are present in your skin.
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Take Home Message
Aging is a somewhat unfortunate – yet, obviously, unavoidable – part of life. One of the most obvious unfortunate aspects of aging is the negative changes in the health of your skin.
As your skin is the first point of contact with the outside world, it experiences frequent exposure to harmful mutations and environmental factors. Over time this can lead to mutated skin cells, the overproduction of melanin, and declines in skin structure, function, and health.
So, the lesson here? Look after your skin, because it spends a heap of time looking after you!