Why does skin lose its elasticity as we get old?

Asked by Sam Whiley via Facebook

Ehlers–Danlos syndrome is a condition that causes super-stretchy skin. (Source: Wikimedia)
Ehlers–Danlos syndrome is a condition that results in super-stretchy skin. (Source: Wikimedia)
Before we even jump to the answer, let’s define what elasticity actually is.  It’s not really the “stretchiness” of your skin as many people tend to think it is; that’s only half the definition.  If elasticity were to be defined as only how stretchy something can be, then your skin would be quite inelastic since we can’t really stretch it all that much without it breaking.  Unless, of course, you have a certain form of Ehlers–Danlos syndrome.

However, your skin and something like a rubber band are truly elastic since elasticity is actually the ability of some kind of substance to return to its original shape after a force applied to change its shape in the first place has been finally removed.  In order to be elastic you need to be stretchy to begin with but elasticity has a return trip (a “bounce back”); stretchiness alone does not.  Imagine stretching a rubber band.  As soon as you let go of one end, the rubber band goes back to its original shape; that property is known as elasticity.

6 reasons why your skin stops being stretchy

If you pull your skin and it quickly pops back into place, then it’s very elastic.  If you pull your skin and it very slowly sinks back down then it’s not as elastic.  Elasticity is therefore a relative term.

Now that we got that over with, let’s take a look at some of the reasons as to why your skin sags (stretches) with age but isn’t as elastic (cannot bounce back into shape as quickly as it could in your youth).

One of the microscopic substances that makes up your skin is known as collagen.  Collagen is nothing more than a protein that is twisted in a helical shape; like a DNA molecule.  However, collagen has three strands instead of two.  Collagen’s shape helps to keep your skin strong and firm and confers some elastic properties as well.

While collagen does have elastic properties, there is a protein in your skin that is more involved in the elasticity of it: this protein is called elastin.  That name is quite apropos, no?  Elastin allows your skin to pop back into place after some kind of force depresses it or pulls it out of position; like your aunt’s fingers pinching your cheek.

Unfortunately with age, collagen’s and elastin’s ability to function properly declines due to many reasons.  Here are just a few:

1.)    Genes: this is probably the biggest factor in determining why and when your skin will lose elasticity, sag, and form wrinkles.  Now, I’m not saying go ahead and do whatever you want because you can’t control your genetic code anyways.  Remember: you can maximize your genetic potential only up to a certain point but you can destroy it far more quickly.

2.)    Smoking:  It’s a well established fact that this causes damage to the skin through one of several ways.  The first is the fact that smokers will purse their lips and often furrow their brows and squint their eyes when they actually smoke.  All else equal, the actual physical motion of the facial muscles will wrinkle the skin much more quickly than a non-smoker.  However, it’s really less about that and more about the fact that cigarettes contain substances that negatively affect collagen synthesis, increase its breakdown, while simultaneously diminishing nutrient delivery to the skin.

3.)    U.V. Radiation.  Most of us get this from the sun and many others flirting with danger get it from tanning salons.  You can think of U.V. radiation as a weapon of mass destruction for your skin.  Exposure to too much of the wrong kind of U.V. radiation essentially bombards your proteins in the skin with WMD’s that destroys the collagen directly.  In addition, U.V. radiation can cause the DNA in skin cells to undergo genetic mutations that will lead to skin cancer.  How fun!

4.)    Stress.  When your body is under a lot of stress it releases a stress hormone known as cortisol.  This hormone causes all sorts of problems that lead to inflammation of the skin.  For example, it can lead to inflammatory breakouts that we typically get as teenagers.  This inflammation, over the long term, in and of itself can destroy collagen and elastin and this can then lead to things like acne scars.  If that wasn’t bad enough, cortisol is also a hormone that slows down the reparative mechanisms in your skin and has been implicated in the destruction of collagen directly.  This means that just because you aren’t getting breakouts, which may be a sign of stress, that doesn’t mean cortisol isn’t destroying your skin right now.  Insidious, isn’t it?

5.)    Sleep.  If you don’t get enough sleep you can suffer a lot of ill effects; but you already knew that.  However, did you know that not only will lack of sleep cause stress but that it’s during our sleep that a lot of repair and regeneration of our skin takes place?  If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t give your body enough time to properly heal itself.  So get your beauty sleep!

6.)    Diet.  Do you like sweets?  Too bad if the answer is yes.  It’s been shown that eating too much stuff with sugar can cause your skin to start sagging prematurely due to a process called glycation.  What basically occurs during glycation is that the sugar you eat begins to attach itself to elastin and collagen, thereby disrupting the normal cohesiveness of your skin, which therefore causes it to wrinkle and sag.  It’s no fun, but you might consider cutting out some of that sugar for this and many other health related reasons.

All of these factors speed up the degradation of collagen and elastin which are the two components in charge of keeping your skin wrinkle free and pliable but firm: the youthful look.

While all of the aforementioned reasons describe why your skin loses elasticity on its own, you must keep in mind that your skin isn’t an isolated organ.  In our case, beauty isn’t just skin deep.  In fact, there are other things that occur, like changes with underlying fat, muscle, and bone that increase or expedite the skin’s loss of elasticity.  See the links below for more information!

Answered by Artem Cheprasov

 

References:

Baumann  M.D., Leslie. Protein Crosslinks as a Cause of Aging. Skin Type Solutions. http://skintypesolutions.com/index.php?option=com_article&view=article&id=476. (accessed 1/9/13).

Stanislaw M.D., Paul.  Understanding the Aging Process.  Stanislaw M.D. http://www.stanislawmd.com/aging-process.php. (accessed 1/9/2013).

Ezure, T., Hosoi, J., Amano, S., & Tsuchiya, T. (2009). Sagging of the cheek is related to skin elasticity, fat mass and mimetic muscle function Skin Research and Technology, 15 (3), 299-305 DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0846.2009.00364.x

Buehler, M. (2011). Atomistic and continuum modeling of mechanical properties of collagen: Elasticity, fracture, and self-assembly Journal of Materials Research, 21 (08), 1947-1961 DOI: 10.1557/jmr.2006.0236

Quan, T. (2004).  Solar ultraviolet irradiation educes collagen in photoaged human skin by blocking transforming growth factor beta type II receptor/Smad signaling.  The American Journal of Pathology. 165(3): 741-51

Houck, J.C. (1968) Induction of collagenolytic and proteolytic activities by anti-inflammatory drugs in the skin and fibroblast.  Biochemical Pharmacology. 17(1): 2081-2090

Article by Artem Cheprasov

January 11, 2013

Dr. Artem Cheprasov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. He then moved to the U.S. when he was a little boy. So no, he is not a spy. Or is he? He finished his studies in veterinary medicine at the top 10% of his class, conducted research, and discovered a cool mathematics algorithm; but we cannot confirm this as both Washington and Moscow have refused to comment on this matter either because he really is a spy or more likely because they have no idea who he even is.


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3 thoughts on “Why does skin lose its elasticity as we get old?”

  1. Can I improve the elasticity of my skin or joint cartilage by eating extra collagen ?
    I thought that anything I eat gets digested and broken down into its minimal constituent parts.
    Assuming a normal mixed diet, the loss of skin elasticity or joint cartilage is a result of ageing, not because I am not eating any particular food.

  2. I am good on all 6 things on your list, but the biggest thing you fail to mention,,, I sleep 9 to 10 hours a day btw, ….

    What you fail to mention is no matter how healthy you try to eat, organic balanced, filling up on fish fruits and greens….. we still NEED VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS!!!

    I was on vitamins for years and went off them for three years and that was the FIRST time ever that I say a decline in my skin. I agree with your list but our foods do not carry the same nutritional value as 40 years ago. Vitamin E and selenium and a multi worked best for me. Vitamins keep our collagen strong!

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