a crumpled piece of graph paper

So, what is a wrinkle? This question is not as simple as it might sound. Yes, you can get some superficial explanations, such as a wrinkle is a groove or crease that is the result of too much sun. But given the time and money we spend on trying to erase them, it seems to me we should get a better handle on what we are dealing with and maybe some new clues as to how to be even more successful wrinkle warriors.

It turns out that there’s a lot we don’t know about wrinkles. I bet you didn’t know that the proper name for them is rhytide. Or that under a microscope a biopsy of a wrinkle exhibits no telltale signs that reveal it to be a wrinkle.(source).

Do some reading around and you’ll come across explanations like this: “Wrinkles are configuration changes in the skin”. Which, when you think about it, is not actually helpful; what configurations and changing how?

Science hasn’t come to a consensus on how to answer this. Some scientists believe that wrinkles are due to a clone of abnormal cells that have been reproduced. Others believe that wrinkles are due to the loss of subcutaneous fat and bone. As we age, these supporting structures shrink, but the skin doesn’t and so the “extra” drapes (eg wrinkles). The third theory is that the skin is thinning due to loss of collagen and elasticity and without these elements starts to drape and sag. A combination of all three is the most likely.

The breakthrough, aha moment for me was realizing that to form a wrinkle you need loose skin. Let’s consider some examples. The first signs of aging appear around the eyes (take note, all 20-somethings!). The eyebrows move down over the superorbital ridge of the eye, while fat slides down into the eyelids causing puffyness. The culprit in this process is lax, or loose skin. Nasolabial folds are also the result of loose skin.

And loose skin is created when the scaffolding on which it sits — fat and bones — starts to diminish. For example, cheeks lose fat and the skull begins to shrink and more loose skin is produced. Note, I didn’t mention muscle. In fact, I read that skeletal structure is more important than atrophy (source). So get your calcium and do resistance exercises — anything that maintains bone density.

In 1999, a study by French scientists involving 157 biopsies of 46 subjects between 57–98 confirmed that significant biochemical changes contributed to the formation of wrinkles. In particular, components that essential for corneocytes (vital for the skin barrier) decline, there is water loss and what is called defective desquamation (roughly translated, we are less efficient at shedding old skin cells).

The presence of sebaceous glands also makes a difference. Researchers found that sebaceous gland density prevented wrinkle deepening — and vice versa. The volume of sebum peaks in our mid-20s.

A couple of other scientists came up with a theory that I’ll call “the botch job”. Obviously, they have a fancier name, but the idea is that wrinkles are the result of incorrect repairs to injured elastin and collagen fibers. Repeated expression movements pull the skin about, damages the fibers and instead of being regenerated, they get repaired by collagen that isn’t quite right for the job, such as long collagen fibers. When long collagen accumulates it creates folds of skin (aka wrinkles).  

In this way, you can think of a wrinkle as a wound — one that hasn’t been repaired very well. Therefore, agents that modify the process of wound healing (by minimizing scar formation and improving skin remodeling) have a potential to prevent or even reduce wrinkles (source). And that’s where our favorite anti-agers such as copper peptides and epidermal growth factors come in, since they can degrade the abnormally large cross-linked collagen found in scars and, to a lesser degree, wrinkles.