What Causes Wrinkles? Our Deep Dive, Backed By Dermatologists
As you grow older, your skin develops creases and folds—this is a simple fact of life, and it's a natural part of aging. However, while they're ultimately inevitable, a few factors can cause those creases to crop up earlier than you'd like, and each fine line has its delicate differences.
And before you can identify the type of wrinkle you're dealing with (we have a full explainer here, if you're curious), it's important to understand what causes each set of lines to take up their permanent residence. Ahead, find our guide to what causes wrinkles: Some are unavoidable, you'll see, but others are within your control, to an extent.
Over time, your skin just sags—gravitational wrinkles affect us all at some point. "The most classic example is the marionette lines around the mouth area, which appear as your cheeks begin to sag," says board-certified dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D.
Laughing, smiling, frowning—these expressions can all leave their mark. Now, it's not necessarily the movement that's the problem—creases and lines are part of a well-functioning face—but as you lose vital skin components like collagen (more on that in a moment), your skin isn't as able to bounce back from these movements. "Over time, these lines will deepen and etch into the skin, similar to the way folding paper will leave a crease," says board-certified dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D., founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care.
The modern "tech neck" is also a product of movement—specifically, bending your neck down. "We get horizontal lines in the neck due to the bending of the neck to look down," says board-certified dermatologist Jeremy Fenton, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC and Long Beach, New York. "People are noting more of this now that we spend more time looking down at our screens. You can get the deep lines that are horizontal and run across the front of the neck from the bending, or flexion, of the neck."
Loss of collagen.
A little science jargon for you: The skin is made up of three layers—the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis (the deep, subcutaneous fatty tissue). The dermis contains fibroblasts, which are cells that produce elastin and collagen. But as we age, those fibroblasts naturally produce less collagen1, which means the structure of your dermis suffers, resulting in visible signs of aging2—like sagging, fine lines, and sallowness.
While the exact age this process starts differs for everyone, collagen production starts to dip in most people's bodies from the time they're in their late teens or early 20s and decreases about 1% a year3 after that. And once people hit menopause, they experience a 30% drop in collagen4 in the first five years, with a 2% dip every year after that.
"Up to 80% of the signs of skin aging5—including thinning and loss of elasticity—are due to UV damage," Bailey adds. One study even observed collagen under UV light and found that there was a "significant decrease" in collagen structure afterward6.
See, the oxidative stress from UV rays damages the underlying elastic structure in the skin and causes fine, tissue-like creases, resulting in a leathery, crepey appearance. (You may come across more scientific terms, like elastotic wrinkles or atrophic wrinkles, since they form due to the breakdown of your skin's elastic structure.)
Aside from UV rays, other environmental aggressors can cause free radical damage and lead to wrinkles over time—think pollution, cold air, smoke, etc.
In fact, smoking is a "big one" for collagen damage, board-certified dermatologist Gary Goldenberg, M.D., once told us: "Smoking decreases the amount of oxygen delivered to tissues. Therefore, tissue cannot regenerate and is more likely to become damaged and die," he explains. One study on twins found that those who smoked had more wrinkles, crow's feet, and facial lines than their nonsmoking counterparts.
You know when you wake up with pillow lines etched across your face and chest? Well, as you grow older and your collagen levels start to decline, you may notice those lines stick around. Says Bailey, "They will deepen over time with repetition as skin thins and elasticity wains with both age and sun damage."
It's a concept called "compression wrinkles," and it occurs from constant pressure on the delicate area from, say, sleeping on your stomach with the side of your face smashed into the pillow.
How can you prevent them?
Again, there are multiple types of wrinkles, and you don't want to approach them all the same way. Here, you'll find some general tips, depending on the cause:
Protect your skin from the sun.
"Protect your skin from the harmful effects UV rays can have on the quality of your elastic tissue," says Idriss. In addition to finding a sunscreen you love (our favorites, here), be smart about your time in the sun and limit sunbathing for sport—proper sun protection is far more than a bottle of SPF.
Sleep on your back.
"Sleeping on your back will definitely slow the rate of progression of lines," says Idriss, especially on your chest and neck. Of course, it's a tad unrealistic to control your sleeping position at all times, so don't fret too much if you wake up on your stomach or side most mornings. Some people swear by a weighted blanket to keep your sleeping position steady, or you can always invest in some silk sheets—the fabric prevents friction and provides some slip for delicate skin, so it's much softer on those folds.
Protect with antioxidants.
Antioxidants help buffer the skin against photoaging by both absorbing UV rays and helping neutralize UV-induced oxidative stress7.* Vitamin C, niacinamide, CoQ10—all of these ingredients are beloved for neutralizing free radicals in cells that lead to skin aging, and you can find them in topical skin care products or in supplement form. When choosing a beauty supplement, you might want to look out for astaxanthin in particular, as consuming the carotenoid has been shown to reduce wrinkles in as little as six weeks.
Find our favorite antioxidant-rich beauty supplements here.
Promote collagen production.
Topical skin care ingredients can help stimulate collagen renewal on a cellular level: Retinoids, for example, have been scientifically shown to increase collagen production in the skin8; glycolic acid has been shown to increase collagen production9 and trigger a restorative healing response in the skin; and vitamin C plays a vital role in the collagen synthesis process and stabilizes the collagen you already have.
In addition to these ingredients, it can also be helpful to support your body's natural collagen production with hydrolyzed collagen supplements. In fact, studies have shown that taking collagen peptides will support skin elasticity and hydration levels and promote youthful texture2.
Of course, not all collagen supplements are created equal, so see here for a list of high-quality collagen supplements to choose from.
Keep your skin hydrated.
Keeping the skin well moisturized is vital for its long-term health, and improper hydration can lead to premature aging. Without a hydrated, well-functioning barrier, your skin isn't as protected from external aggressors (which, as we've noted, can cause free radical damage and premature wrinkles).
Point being: Focusing on hydration is a key part of your skin's longevity and health. You can find our full guide to hydrating the skin here, but allow us to call out ceramides, aloe, and hyaluronic acid as some of our favorite skin-plumping ingredients.
Be mindful of facial movements.
"Of course live your life to the fullest, but if you are at home, resting the muscles on your face helps, especially when throughout the day the mouth is in constant motion," aesthetic registered nurse Neethi Masur, R.N., at SKINNEY MedSpa once shared with mbg. We're certainly not going to deter you from laughing or expressing, but you can consider how you're resting your face when you're not actively engaging—for example, do you keep your neck bent down, even when you aren't peering at your phone screen?
You can also try face yoga, where you intentionally isolate and tone your face muscles for tighter, more toned skin. One 2018 study even found that the daily exercise could reduce signs of facial aging10, with improvements especially in upper and lower cheek fullness.
Each set of fine lines has its delicate nuances to keep in mind; while all wrinkles are unavoidable at some point, a few factors can speed up the aging process and cause an early onset. The first step, of course, is to understand these causes so you're not unconsciously messing with your skin health—then you can proceed with proactive treatments.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.