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How Your Skin Changes in Your 20s and 30s

Nicki Zevola's picture

As Lena Dunham and the cast of ​Girls​ have reminded us, life changes a lot - and in unexpected ways - during one's twenties.  Our ideas of perfect love, career, and even hair change during that crucial decade of development.

And the skin doesn't relent either.  Check out the following changes your skin goes through in your 20s and 30s:

Decreased cell turnover
Ever notice how soft and smooth a baby's skin is?  The major reason for this is cell turnover.  The uppermost layer of skin, the epidermis, turns over twice as often in the young as the old (Ann NY Acad Sci, 1969).  After age 30, the skin takes 30 or more days to renew and regenerate itself, as opposed to just 20 days for those who are 20 and below (Journal of Investigative Dermatology​, 1979).  While this is a nature by-product of aging, it can leave skin looking rough and mottled long before its time.
How to combat it:  Exfoliate once or twice weekly with a gentle scrub or alpha hydroxy acid.  On the other nights, use a retinoid to increase cell turnover.

Sunspots start to show
Sunspots appear for a number of reasons.  While most people know you get sunspots from, well, sun exposure (duh!), you can also get sunspots because there is a decrease in the number of melanocytes, or skin pigment-producing cells, with age.  The number decreases by 8-20% per decade (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology​ , 1986), and their disappearance is not always neat and orderly, leaving your skin mottled in some areas, even-colored in others. Even worse, because melanin absorbs carcinogenic UV light, the skin's ability to protect itself from skin cancer decreases with age.
How to combat it:  See your dermatologist for IPL or other targeted laser treatments, or a chemical peel.  At home, treat sunspots with hydroquinone if you have light-to-medium toned skin; use kojic acid or alpha hydroxy acids if you have darker skin.

Wrinkles may appear as well
Despite popular belief, wound healing has little or nothing to do with treating a wrinkle.  Wound healing is a fast-acting, almost instantaneous process, in which chemical signals (i.e., cytokines, growth factors) and physical signs (i.e., immune cells) are sent to infiltrate the wounded area.   However, wrinkling is a slow, tedious process.  Watching a wrinkle form is almost like watching grass grow, which is probably why there is no animal or in vitro model of wrinkling yet in science. 

Based upon what is known, most wrinkles are associated with alterations in collagen, the rope-like bundles organized underneath the skin.  Collagen is found in organized patterns in young skin, but in disarray in older, wrinkled skin (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 1986).  Wrinkled skin is also found to have less collageneous connections between the uppermost and lowermost layers of skin (British Journal of Dermatology​, 1997 ) as well as less collagen in general.

How to combat it:  Use a nightly retinoid.  Studies have shown that those who use retinoids have increased collagen production, both through increased cellular turnover and decreased matrix metalloproteinases (enzymes that degrade collagen) (Clinical and Experimental Dermatology​, 2008). 

Decreased subcutaneous tissue
Skin in the face, hands, and shins gets thinner with age (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 1986).  While this loss of "baby fat" can be a welcome blessing for some (like me!), the body unfortunately does not know when to stop.  By age 80, most people have a "hallowed-out" look, largely the result of loss of subcutaneous tissue underneath the skin.

How to combat it:  Honestly, you can't protect against this one completely, as it is a natural sign of aging, not completely the result of sun exposure.  Maintaining a healthy (not too thin) weight can help.

Bottom Line
Nearly all of the changes your skin experiences through your 20s and 30s can be combatted with sunscreen, retinoids, antioxidants, niacinamide or nicotinic acid (derivatives of niacin), and alpha hydroxy acids.  Some teenage sun-worshippers may find it necessary to visit their dermatologist for IPL treatments or chemical peels, whereas those who stayed out of the sun may still look like they're in high school.  It's all about what you can do ​now​, and the number one is, while boring, to stay out of the sun!  :-)


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