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Why Do We Get Wrinkles As We Age?

By Donna Fuscaldo, AARP, February 2022

Sun exposure is a major reason, but other factors are harder to control.

Repetitive muscle movements, smoking and too much sun are leading causes of wrinkles. But even if you use sunblock religiously and steer clear of cigarettes, you’ll still get those lines and creases as you age.

Wrinkles aren’t a serious medical condition, but the quest to get rid of them can cost you a fortune. That’s why sales of anti-wrinkle cosmetic products alone are poised to reach over $60 billion in the U.S. by 2026. And that doesn’t even account for the billions of dollars spent on plastic surgery and other anti-aging treatments.

What are wrinkles, anyway?

Wrinkles are folds, ridges and creases that appear on your skin naturally as you grow older. They tend to show up first on your face and the body parts often exposed to the sun, like your neck, hands, arms and legs.

Wrinkles occur in the dermis, or the middle layer, of your skin. This layer is made up of elastin and collagen fibers. As we age, these fibers loosen — creating those pesky lines, folds and creases — and our skin can’t hold as much moisture, which leads to wrinkles, too.

“Aging is a complex process,” says Shilpi Khetarpal, M.D., a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic. “There are various intrinsic and extrinsic factors that control how we age.”

Intrinsic versus extrinsic factors

The intrinsic factors, or the ones you can’t control, include genetics and certain muscle movements. People with darker skin tend to wrinkle less from the sun than those with fair complexions. Forehead lines, frown lines and crow’s-feet are largely out of our control. They’re caused by repeated muscle movements that are mostly subconscious. Over time, the muscles in your face get stronger the more you use them. At the same time, your skin is losing elasticity, causing lines in your face.

If you’re getting lines around your mouth from constantly sipping on a straw or puffing on a cigarette, you can limit them by changing those behaviors. But controlling your frowns or smiles is more difficult. High levels of pollution where you live can also cause lines. The wrinkles on your lower face and cheeks tend to be caused by extrinsic factors, or things within your control. They include smoking, not using sunscreen and drinking too much alcohol.

How to prevent and treat wrinkles

Staving off wrinkles requires preventive measures. That means wearing sunscreen daily and using moisturizing creams that have vitamin C and retinol, derived from vitamin A, to build up collagen, Khetarpal says. These creams don’t have to break the bank. While prices can climb into the hundreds of dollars for some high-end products, a $10 bottle of anti-aging cream can be better than none.

To attempt to reverse the signs of aging, there are several medical procedures you can pursue, including Botox, fillers and face-lifts. These elective cosmetic treatments often aren’t covered by insurance, including Medicare, and can be a sizable out-of-pocket expense.

Even if you do nothing else, Khetarpal advises that you limit your exposure to the sun’s harmful, wrinkle-causing rays. “The best thing to protect your skin is to wear a hat, wear sunscreen and avoid peak sun hours,” Khetarpal says. As for those wrinkles formed by smiling too much, consider them precious lifelines.

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