How to understand your aging skin

Signs of aging can be primarily attributed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure.

by Linda Leibl — 

With 450 million baby boomers worldwide, it is of little surprise that the market for anti-aging treatments is in the midst of an explosion. Because this maturing group wants to look and feel great, they are demanding anti-aging, health and wellness products — and there seems to be no end to this infatuation with the body and skin’s aging process. As a result, we are witnessing an exploding wellness revolution en masse.

How does skin really age?

Signs of aging can be primarily attributed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure. Although we are familiar with the wrinkles, rough texture, uneven pigmentation, dehydration and loss of elasticity — less attention is devoted to the processes that occur at a biochemical level, which trigger these changes.

Most anti-aging products are designed to topically treat these manifestations, like wrinkles and sagging. Realistically, there is only so much we can do to address these issues through the use of topical products. The truth is that there is no cosmetic-grade product available that will take away deep wrinkles.

The products you can buy vary in their levels of strength, potency and results, but for the most part, they are a grade that is deemed safe for the average consumer and, overall, do not work that well. To obtain truly effective products, you must see a professional with licensed training and expertise who can administer professional facials, treatments, peels, resurfacing and alternative facelift procedures and who has access to the products and equipment that the average consumer can’t buy.

The real science behind aging skin

To have realistic expectations, you must understand the science behind aging skin. Three primary biochemical reactions take place in the skin that contribute to the structural changes associated with aging. Initially, the skin’s antioxidant defense system loses its capacity to fight oxidative stress and the associated reactive oxygen species (ROS) — otherwise known as free radicals — that lead to aging. Combine this with an increase in the destructive matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) enzymes and an associated decrease in collagen synthesis, along with the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), and the result is prematurely aged skin.

Reactive oxygen species

Free radicals, or ROS, occur naturally throughout a normal body metabolism. They also may be produced from exposure to UV radiation, air pollution, smoking, alcohol and inflammation. ROS are formed when oxygen combines with other molecules, resulting in oxygen molecules with an unpaired electron. These are unstable and travel throughout the body wreaking havoc, and causing the oxidation of DNA and structural components.

Free radicals can lead to inflammation, including leaky capillaries, hyperpigmentation, tissue destruction, disease and even cell death. Fortunately, the body has natural defense mechanisms, such as antioxidants, to protect its tissues from ROS. However, its natural antioxidant supply often is not plentiful enough to provide adequate protection, especially in the skin. Studies have also demonstrated that exposure to UV radiation can inhibit antioxidant systems, so topical antioxidants are a good option for supplementing the body’s natural means of protection.

Matrix metalloproteinase

MMPs are enzymes that, when activated, control matrix degradation in the dermis. Each MMP is a collagenase because it specifically decomposes particular collagens or other proteins in the extracellular matrix of the dermis. Collagenase is really a group of enzymes that are responsible for breaking down the different types of collagen and elastin.

The formation of MMPs may be stimulated by internal growth factors and inflammatory modulators, as well as UV radiation. Because collagenase degrades existing collagen and inhibits the formation of new collagen, long-term elevation results in disorganization and clumping — characteristics of photoaged skin.

Advanced glycation end products

Although we know that photoaging leads to the cross-linking of the collagen and elastin in the skin, it has only been in recent years that scientists have begun to understand more about this process. Collagen and elastin proteins are highly susceptible to an internal chemical reaction within the body, called glycation. This nonenzyme-mediated reaction takes place between free amino groups in proteins and a sugar, such as glucose.

The same glucose that provides energy for the cells can react with proteins, such as collagen, resulting in the formation of AGEs and free radicals, which contribute to the cross-linking of protein fibers, the loss of elasticity and changes in the dermis associated with the aging process. When AGEs form in the skin, they activate a receptor site and form a complex known as RAGE (Receptor-AGE), which signals cellular processes that are related to inflammation and subsequent disease. This inflammation is detrimental to the aging process and occurs with many diseases.

Although it may seem like these three biochemical reactions are isolated occurrences in the skin, it is important to note that they are very interconnected and influence each other. Collectively, they contribute to the premature aging of skin.

Your skincare professional understands these biochemical concepts and can tell you which products are needed to address your specific skin concerns and issues.


Linda L. Leibl, B.S., a therapeutic aesthetician, founded Advanced Skin Technology in 1993. Visit to view before-and-after photos and information on Linda’s background, services and products. 480-443-3445 or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 27, Number 3, June/July 2008.

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