It is sad that natural changes in the skin as we grow older are often considered unacceptable and embarrassing. In the USA alone, more than $12 billion is spent each year on cosmetics to disguise or prevent the signs of ageing. We might think this is due to our youth-fixated western society, but throughout history anti-ageing potions (many of them very bizarre) have been applied to the skin.

How Skin Ages

Old skin is wrinkled, dry and saggy, and has a mottled colour. In fact, these changes are more to do with exposure to sunlight than with simply getting old. Therefore, the exposed areas on the hands, face and neck seem to age faster and look less attractive than the smooth and even skin on the tummy.

Skin ages in two ways, through:

  • sun damage, which is probably responsible for 80% of skin ageing
  • normal ageing – but without sun damage we would probably not develop wrinkles until we were in our 80s.

The sun is very bad for skin. It makes it thinner and damages its important proteins, such as collagen, which acts as scaffolding to give skin its strength, and elastin, which gives skin its bounce. Even young complexions develop fine wrinkles after sunbathing, giving the skin a coarse, grainy appearance. Collagen also supports the tiny blood vessels in the skin. Weakening of the collagen means the blood vessels show up as broken thread veins (‘farmer’s face’) and bleed more easily; these tiny bruises end up as mottled discoloration. Brownish patches, known as liver spots, gradually develop on sun-exposed areas such as the hands and sides of the forehead.

Looking after Your Skin as You Get Older

Skin produces its own natural grease to protect the skin, and to prevent it from losing moisture. As we get older, our skin becomes more fragile, especially in sun-exposed areas, so it desperately needs the greasy protection. Unfortunately, older skin produces less grease, and every time we wash with soap we strip away the natural oils. Bubble baths contain detergent to make the foam, so they also remove oils from the skin.

Here are some hints to keep your skin in good condition.

  • Use a sunscreen every day. This will prevent further ageing of your skin.
  • Give up smoking.
  • Avoid overwashing. As your skin does not sweat as much when you are older and does not produce as much grease, body odour is not such a problem as in younger people. Obviously, you want to be hygienic, but consider bathing or showering on alternate days instead of daily.
  • Use a ‘cream bar’ or ‘cream body wash’, rather than a soap.
  • Avoid foam baths (bubble baths).
  • After bathing or showering, apply a body cream. This is better than using a bath oil, which can make the bath or shower dangerously slippery.

For more information, look at the section on itching.

Fascinating Facts

  • Fewer British women use anti-wrinkle cream than French, Spanish or German women (Mintel 2004)
  • In the UK, £545 million is spent on skin care each year (Mintel 2004)
  • The French call brown age spots ‘les médaillons de cimetière’ (cemetery medals)
  • Cleopatra used red wine, now known to contain alpha hydroxy acids, on her face
  • The Ebers papyrus, an ancient Egyptian papyrus from 1550 BC, has a recipe to cure wrinkles, made from pistachio nuts, wax, poppy seed oil and grass


First published on:
Reviewed and edited by: Fiona Elliott
Last updated: December 2020

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