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5 Ways Your Skin Changes as You Age

Plus tips on how to slow down wrinkles, thinning skin and age spots and keep your skin looking vibrant


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Photo Collage: AARP;(Source: Getty Images)

Getting older leaves its mark on every part of your body, from your joints and your digestive system to your heart and blood vessels. But perhaps nowhere is aging’s impact more noticeable than on your skin — it’s like a front page announcing the passage of time.

Wrinkles, sagging and discoloration are all normal changes to your skin as you age, experts say. Aging also makes your skin more delicate and susceptible to dryness, itching and rashes.

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“It’s important to recognize that aging is a natural part of going through life. I always tell patients, it beats the alternative,” says Zaineb Makhzoumi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologic surgeon for the University of Maryland Medical System.

While aging skin is beautiful skin, if you prefer a more youthful look, there are plenty of ways to achieve a radiant mature complexion, dermatologists say, ranging from over-the-counter products to in-office procedures.

“We can try to slow things down in a measured way,” Makhzoumi says. “We can be as subtle or as not subtle as people want.”

Here, Makhzoumi and other experts share five specific ways skin changes with time, along with tips to help your skin look vibrant, no matter your age:

1. Wrinkles and sagging

As you age, you produce less collagen, the building block of protein in the skin that gives your skin its firmness and elasticity. Collagen production starts to dwindle as early as your mid-20s, Makhzoumi says, and by your early 30s, you’re losing 1 percent of your collagen every year.

“The reason that collagen is so important is because it serves as a scaffolding that holds up your skin,” she says. “Without it, your skin just sags and drops.” 

Studies show that sun exposure accelerates the breakdown of collagen and damages fibers in the skin. That causes skin to lose its ability to snap back after stretching, leading to sagging, wrinkles and lines.

Other factors that contribute to wrinkles include smoking, exposure to pollution, stress, genetics and years of repeated facial muscle movements.

But sun exposure is by far the biggest contributor, Makhzoumi says.

What you can do: Wearing sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every day “helps you hold on to your collagen,” Makhzoumi says, preventing further wrinkles and damage.

For existing lines and wrinkles, creams containing retinol promote collagen production, enhance cell turnover and help erase fine lines, dermatologists say. Retinol is available in both over-the-counter creams and prescription formulas (Retin-A, tretinoin).

For a more noticeable transformation, in-office cosmetic treatments, though not covered by Medicare or insurance, can help smooth out wrinkles. Options include FDA-approved injectables such as Botox, hyaluronic acid fillers such as Restylane and Juvederm, and laser resurfacing, dermabrasion and microneedling.

Daily Sunscreen: Your No. 1 Defense Against Aging Skin

Fortunately, your best bet for combating the skin changes that come with aging is simple: consistent daily use of a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

Slathering on sunscreen shields your skin from harmful UV rays, which are the primary cause of wrinkles, fine lines and sun spots.

It’s never too late to start. One study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that even when participants began applying sunscreen daily in their 40s and 50s, it still reduced the signs of skin aging after four and a half years compared to the skin of those who used sunscreen only sometimes.

2. Thinner, duller and more fragile

As we age, our outer layer of skin thins, largely due to the loss of collagen and fat under the skin, says Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Art of Skin MD in Solana Beach, California.

You may notice “more transparency to the skin and more fragility,” Palm says. “Also, that beautiful juicy radiance you see on the skin gets dulled.”

Aging and sun exposure both contribute to skin thinning, she says.

The number of pigment-containing cells in your skin also decreases, making your skin look paler and more translucent. Over time, it can develop a wrinkled, paperlike texture, and you may find that it damages more easily.

At the same time, the blood vessels underneath the skin become more fragile, leading to easy bruising.

“It’s not uncommon for bruises to occur with minimal trauma — it doesn’t have to be a big fall or injury,” says Richard Lucariello, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with Waccamaw Dermatology in South Carolina. “Just banging your arm on a table lightly can induce it.”

What you can do: Some research indicates that applying a retinol cream could help reverse age-related skin thinning. For example, in a 2018 study published in Experimental Dermatology, Brazilian researchers found that topical retinol helped in “restoring dermal thickness.”

Another study found that retinoids, such as retinoic acid and retinol, significantly increased the thickness of the skin’s outer layer after just four weeks of use.

Because retinol creams can dry out the skin, Lucariello recommends using them only every other day for the first few months, until your skin adapts. He suggests pairing the cream with a thick, high-quality moisturizer, which has the added benefit of further protecting your skin from tearing and damage.

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3. Age spots and discoloration

Too much sun exposure can lead to freckles, pigment irregularities and flat dark patches, referred to as age spots, sun spots or liver spots. Lentigines (their clinical name) are most common in areas that get a lot of sun, such as your face, hands, arms, back and feet.

Although young people who spend a lot of time in the sun can develop age spots, they are especially common in people over age 50.

Age spots don’t require treatment, but what looks like an age spot could be skin cancer, so it’s important to have it evaluated by a dermatologist.

What you can do: If your sun spots bother you, there are several options for evening your skin tone and fading spots, Makhzoumi says. Prescription-strength retinol or hydroquinone creams can make them disappear over time. Over-the-counter creams specifically designed for treating dark spots can also help if you use them consistently.

For a faster fix, ask your dermatologist about laser treatments, chemical peels, microdermabrasion or intense pulsed light therapy (IPL, also called a photofacial). To prevent sun spots, stay out of the sun or apply sunscreen to exposed areas.

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4. Dryness and itchiness

As the years go by, our skin produces less sweat and less sebum, an oily substance that helps moisturize and protect the skin. Plus, its ability to hold on to moisture declines with age. The result? More than half of older adults battle dry, itchy skin.

You can end up with red, scaly patches on your elbows, lower arms and legs. Some people suffer from extremely dry hands that crack and bleed.

What you can do: Keep dryness at bay by running a humidifier at night, frequently applying moisturizing creams or ointments (not lotions), and wearing gloves when you go outside or perform tasks that require you to get your hands wet, like doing the dishes. (For suggestions, see “Drugstore Skin-Care Buys Better Than the Pricey Stuff.”)

When you bathe, use lukewarm instead of hot water, and apply a barrier moisturizer within two or three minutes of stepping out of the shower. “The key is knowing when to apply it,” Makhzoumi says. “That’s when pores of skin are open, and that’s when you can seal in all the moisture.” If your skin seems red, itchy and cracked, see a dermatologist, who may prescribe a topical steroid that can offer relief.

5. Noncancerous growths

As you age, your skin can become a canvas for all sorts of quirky noncancerous skin growths. Common ones include:

  • Brown wartlike patches called seborrheic keratoses that often appear in skin folds
  • Skin tags, which are floppy pieces of skin that hang from a stalk
  • Cherry angiomas, which are little red dots made of blood vessels

Skin cancer is also more prevalent in older adults, so you should see your doctor if you have any growths that grow rapidly, bleed or don’t heal. (For more, see “4 Warning Signs of Melanoma That Are Easy to Miss.”)

What you can do: If you have growths that bother you, dermatologists have a variety of ways to remove them, such as zapping them with a laser, freezing them with liquid nitrogen or shaving them off surgically.

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