• Anna Solana, science journalist

    Wrinkles, the imprint of time on the skin

    3 Dec

    Wrinkles are a universal sign of ageing. Nonetheless, even though they are inevitable, their appearance can be delayed by caring for the skin and using techniques and products that have given rise to a huge market worldwide.


    Simone de Beauvoir described wrinkles as “something indescribable that comes from the soul", yet few people welcome the wrinkles that appear on their face. Wrinkles, the most visible sign of cell ageing, represent a challenge to cosmetic researchers investigating new ways to retain and increase the skin’s hydration and regeneration capacities.

    According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in the last decade the use of non-invasive cosmetic procedures aimed at achieving a younger appearance has increased by 110% in the USA, while use of botox has jumped by 584%. However, the same body indicates that botox could soon be replaced by a new, less expensive injectable product, based on collagen, a protein that keeps the skin firm and elastic. The collagen for this product is initially taken from the patient and cultivated in a laboratory.


    Anti-wrinkle science

    The number of options available to hold back time and even reverse its effects multiply year on year in the face of growing demand. In the USA, women aged 18 to 24 years spend 200 million dollars (142 million euros) a month on cosmetics, according to the NPD Group market research consultancy. Mintel International points to a market for male grooming products worth 15,000 million dollars (10,558 million euros) in 2010, representing an increase of 1.4% over the previous year. According to the European Commission, mean per capita expenditure on cosmetics in the EU was 128 euros per year in 2007.

    Consumers nowadays can choose between two types of products: products containing vitamin A (retinol) or antioxidants, which aim to slow down ageing, and products like Botox that repair existing damage by (theoretically) reducing wrinkle depth.

    However, cosmetic researchers continue to explore new ways to preserve the skin’s hydration capacity. They are particularly interested in the potential of hyaluronic acid, a viscous polysaccharide used as a wrinkle filler, given that a 2011 report in Archives of Dermatology found that it stimulates collagen production. Some researchers are even investigating human stem cells — which can divide indefinitely without losing any of their potential — and the expression of certain genes responsible for ageing. Unfortunately, however, as pointed by leading dermatologist Jessica Krant in an article published in the Wall Street Journal: "What works in the lab doesn't always work in the real world."

    Why does skin wrinkle?

    What exactly triggers the wrinkling process that all these techniques try to slow down? Time is unforgiving and the fact that the skin thins as it ages affects its firmness and hydration capacity. Studies of aged skin reveal that the elastin and collagen fibres that give skin its elasticity deteriorate over time. From the age of 20, we produce an estimated 1% less collagen in the skin each year. The functioning of our sweat and sebaceous glands also slows down as we age and our skin becomes increasingly drier as the number of macromolecules ensuring tissue cohesion and hydration decreases. The number of melanocytes producing melanin for pigmentation also decreases and blood vessels in the dermis become less dense, making the skin paler. The formation of wrinkles is therefore inevitable.

    These internal changes are also exacerbated by external factors such as alcohol, pollution, smoking and sun exposure, which further degrade elastin and collagen fibres and increase the layer of dead cells accumulating on the epidermal surface.

    The fact that no two skins age in the same way has encouraged genetic research. However, the experts all agree that prevention is better than cure and recommend adopting a skin protection routine from an early age.


    The golden rules for preventing the signs of ageing are: protect the skin from the sun; avoid alcohol and tobacco; eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, especially those containing antioxidants (e.g. blueberries and artichokes); get enough sleep; avoid stress; and take plenty of exercise. However, this inexpensive recipe proves surprisingly difficult to follow, leading consumers to seek faster and generally more expensive alternatives.



    Scientific American

    The Wall Street Journal