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How does our skin age?

Skin aging is characterized by the emergence of wrinkles and spots, a loss of firmness and elasticity, as well as skin dryness. Discover the biological mechanisms behind these signs.

Published February 23, 2024, by Sandrine, Scientific Editor — 6 min read

Focus on the structure of the skin.

The skin is composed of three layers, from the most superficial to the deepest:

  • Epidermis:

    This is the most superficial layer of the skin. It contains several cellular populations (keratinocytes, melanocytes, Langerhans cells, etc...).

    The keratinocytes are present at different levels of the epidermis. They synthesize keratin, a fibrous and water-insoluble protein, which gives the skin its waterproof characteristic. It thus protects the skin from external aggressions.

    The primary role of the epidermis is its function as a skin protector thanks to keratinocytes and the stratum corneum. Indeed, the stratum corneum is composed of various epidermal lipids that shield the skin from external aggressions and transepidermal dehydration. Moreover, it is covered by a hydrolipidic film that acts as an additional protective barrier. This hydrolipidic film is primarily composed of sebum secreted by the sebaceous glands.

    The skin also contains melanocytes. When exposed to UV rays, melanocytes synthesize melanin, a pigment that serves to protect our skin from UV rays. Therefore, tanning is actually a defense mechanism of the skin!

  • Dermis :

    It is at the level of the dermis that new skin cells multiply in order to replace those that are eliminated. Furthermore, the dermis contains the fibroblasts which synthesize collagen fibers, elastin, as well as hyaluronic acid, responsible for the density, elasticity, and firmness of the skin.

  • Hypodermis:

    Its primary role is to manage the storage and release of lipids. It also plays a part in thermoregulation.

The signs of skin aging.

Skin aging results from the combination of internal and external causes. It begins in our twenties.

The signs of skin aging are a loosening of the skin, enlarged pores, the appearance of wrinkles, as well as spots or an increase in dryness.

The skin on the face is particularly affected by aging, as it is continuously exposed to UV rays and pollution. Additionally, the facial muscles are constantly engaged due to facial expressions.

The biological processes behind these signs.

Skin aging is biologically characterized by changes in the epidermis, the dermo-epidermal junction, as well as by the degradation of the dermal extracellular matrix:

  • The wrinkles :

    Surface wrinkles are the most common. They are found in areas where facial expressions are significant, such as areas near the eyes or mouth. Wrinkles are caused by skin dehydration due to an imbalance in its barrier function and by its thinning due to a decrease in keratin synthesis. Indeed, the more dehydrated and thin the skin is, the more pronounced the wrinkles will be.

    Permanent wrinkles are the result of a decrease in collagen in the dermis and a modification of the extracellular matrix. Deep wrinkles are not visible at first,only whenonesmiles or frowns. Over time, they gradually set in and alter the expression of the face. They are the result of repeated muscle contractions.

  • Decline in the skin's barrier function:

    The composition of the skin's stratum corneum changes over time. There is a decrease in sebum secretion, which leads to a weakening of the hydrolipidic film. As a result, the skin becomes more susceptible to damage and dehydration. This change also disrupts the skin's microbiota (dysbiosis). Additionally, with age, there is a decrease in keratinocytes, which play a role in protecting the skin.

  • Dull complexion and enlarged pores :

    The cellular renewal of the skin gradually decreases, which promotes the accumulation of dead cells, leading to a dull complexion and enlarged pores.

  • Skin laxity:

    Due to the repetitive contractions of the muscles in our face, the structure of the fibroblasts changes and they can no longer synthesize collagen and elastin fibers, as well as hyaluronic acid. We then observe a slowdown in fibroblast activity, resulting in a loss of elasticity, density, and firmness of the skin.

  • Pigment Spots:

    The number of melanocytes decreases by 6 to 8% every 10 years. As we age, our skin becomes less protected from the sun. The appearance of pigmented spots is more significant in photo-exposed areas. This can be explained by a reduction in the natural elimination of cells filled with melanin due to the slowing down of skin renewal.


  • DESMOULIERE A. & al. Skin changes during ageing. Subcellular Biochemistry (2019).


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