At what age does skin start to thin?
Skin can start to thin as early as the twenties when collagen levels first start to decrease. Thinning will progress gradually until the skin becomes fragile in late old age. Signs of thinning skin include translucence as it becomes more delicate. Veins and tendons becoming more visible, dark circles may form under the eyes.
Why does skin thin as you age?
I was fascinated by my grandmother's almost translucent skin as a child; her hands were gnarled with blood vessels and visible tendons that she would allow me to wiggle. She would also allow us kids to pull the skin on her arm as far as it would go for the laughs - our early investigations into skin collagen. It took her skin a good few decades to become that thin and fragile looking.
Young, plump skin contains lots of cells in the dermis called fibroblasts, collagen and elastin builders. Both collagen and elastin give our soft tissue and skin stretch and resilience. Fibroblasts start to become less active as early as our twenties, so skin thinning can begin when we are still very young (1). Most people won't notice this until they reach their sixties and their skin becomes more fragile and delicate(2).
How can you tell if your skin is thinning?
The sign of thinning skin is translucence: it starts to become delicate, like tissue paper. 90% of skin thickness is in the dermis, the middle layer of skin tissue which contributes leathery strength and flexibility. As it thins, veins and tendons become more visible on the hands and feet.
Dark circles can also appear under the eyes when skin thins and small blood vessels show through as a darker shade of skin. Dark circles under the eyes may also indicate other conditions for instance a mineral deficiency like anaemia (a medical doctor can diagnose this if suspected).
The skin on the face and extremities are usually are the most affected by thinning. This makes total sense, as the bits that are sticking out the most will receive the most exposure to UV light and other environmental hazards. You'll find more information on other signs of ageing skin here.
How do I stop my skin from thinning when ageing?
1. Wear good SPF sun protection all year round
UVA light in particular can thin skin because it can penetrate the dermis and destroy collagen and elastin fibres. Small blood vessels are vulnerable to UV damage too, and we need these to supply the skin's cells with nutrients and oxygen.
I cover up as much as possible with hats and long sleeves when the sun is very strong, and use an SPF factor 50 on my face, even in the winter, and when I am driving. Car windows are no guarantee against sun damage which has one of the greatest ageing effects on the skin. Read more about skin ageing risk factors here.
2. Use a nutrient-rich moisturiser
A moisturiser's primary role is to keep the top layer of skin (the epidermis) from drying out when exposed to external stresses like dry wind or central heating. Look for moisturising creams that contain active ingredients like the herb comfrey which can promote the production of collagen.
3. Feed the collagen
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, so it's a good idea to get some lean and clean protein into your meals. Good examples are beans, lentils, organic tofu and ethically sourced fish. Try to avoid fatty animal sources like sausage, bacon and other cured meats. Food source antioxidants have magic powers and the ability to help with the protection and repair of cells. You'll find them in fresh fruit and vegetables.
Women will benefit from eating foods rich in phytoestrogens like flax and fermented soya products, as they have a protective effect on the body as our oestrogen naturally wanes in middle age. Sugar is not the skin's friend, proof of this can be found by googling 'advanced glycation end products (AGEs)' or the aptly named 'sugar sag'(3).
Keep your muscles pumping
The skin is nourished and supported by two circulatory systems: lymphatic (transports lymph) and vascular (transports blood). Between them, they supply the skin with the vitals (oxygen & nutrients), carry away waste products, and support the skin's immune cells. Both of these rely on the muscles of the body to help pump blood and lymph fluid around the body. Inactivity equals sluggishness that will result in dull, lifeless and undernourished skin that will be more prone to dryness, thinning and damage.