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The Science of Aging Skin

Lydia Sarfati June 2009 issue of Skin Inc. magazine
old man walking on clock face

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From the moment a person is born, aging begins. Although you are powerless to the natural process of aging, what is done each day will affect the skin later. The rate at which the skin bears the signs of aging is dependent not only upon chronology and genetics, but also on the environment, a very large factor working against the skin that many tend to overlook during their youth.

Chronological aging

As a person ages naturally, several changes take place gradually in the skin. The stratum corneum is the outermost layer of the epidermis, composed of flat, platelike envelopes filled with keratin, a protein that prevents water evaporation. Plump cells are continuously traveling from the lower layers of the epidermis to the upper layers. When they reach the surface, they will have become flat and scaly, at which point they are sloughed off in a process called desquamation. As aging occurs, desquamation changes, resulting in a thicker layer of dead skin cells making the surface uneven and sometimes dull. Production of keratin also slows, which, in turn, means drier skin. The epidermis as a whole will also become thinner and more transparent.

Hormonal changes, mainly due to menopause, cause a reduction in sebum production. Sebum is an oily, lipid-rich film that covers the skin’s surface, providing natural lubrication. Mixed with perspiration, the skin’s surface becomes slightly acidic, keeping some bacteria and fungi from entering and helping to retain water in the tissue by slow evaporation from the surface. Slower production of sebum will again result in dehydrated skin.

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Your Skin at Every Decade

In the 30s

  • Cell turnover slows down.


  • The dermis begins to lose some volume and bounce.


  • Collagen fibers aren’t as efficiently meshed; elastin coils tight.


  • Environmental damage may cause more harm to epidermal cells, but it still might not be visible.

In the 40s

  • The stratum corneum becomes thicker as desquamation slows, affecting the evenness of skin tone.


  • Collagen production slows, making skin looser and more prone to visible wrinkles.


  • Expression lines deepen.


  • Because the dermis is weaker, dilated veins may appear.

In the 50s

  • Skin may become thinner.


  • Hormonal changes cause a reduction in sebum production.


  • A decrease in estrogen and an increase in the male hormone androgen may cause breakouts.

In the 60s and 70s

  • Pigmentation changes, thinning in certain areas and clumping in others, leads to age spots.


  • Less sebum production results in dryer skin.


  • Genetic disposition to certain problems becomes evident, such as bags under the eyes, pigmentation or the appearance of a double chin.


  • Cells in the epidermis become irregularly shaped, and precancerous formations are more likely.


  • Cells called fibroblasts that produce elastin and collagen break down, causing droopiness in the skin.

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