Aging is a fact of life. At some point, we'll all look older than we once did; wrinkles, fine lines, and spots will appear slowly over time. But when it comes to skin health, you may have more questions. So, exactly what causes aging? And can it be prevented?

Yes and no. Since before you were born, your body has carried the blueprints for how you'll look in older age. These blueprints—your genes—determine natural traits, like when your hair will turn grey, how well you'll move around, and when those first wrinkles will show up.

But these genetic blueprints don't make all the rules: your environment and surroundings also impact your health and appearance. Certain lifestyle choices and habits can speed up those natural skin processes, leading to premature aging.

That's why it's important to understand what causes aging in skin, and how to address the factors within your control. Here's what you should know to help your skin stay healthy and vibrant at every age.

What Happens When Skin Ages Naturally

As you get older, lines will appear on your face as a result of several things happening simultaneously and naturally beneath the skin. So, regarding these natural changes, what causes aging?

  • Less elasticity: The elastic fibers deep in the skin's middle layer, the dermis, get damaged over time and ultimately become less flexible. Then, as you smile, frown, and make other repeated facial movements, these folds become permanent.
  • Reduced oils: The body has less activity from sweat and oil glands, which can exacerbate fine lines from the lack of moisture.
  • Loss of fat: The skin starts to lose its plumpness from fat stores, leading it to droop as gravity pulls it downward.
  • Cartilage and bone loss: Reductions of structural tissue in the face can further lead to a sinking, aging look.

For the most part, these factors are a natural part of growing old, creating those "wisdom lines" you might remember from your grandparents. With time, changes may appear subtly as small lines around the mouth or under the eyes, and then deepen into creases and crevices.

What Happens When Skin Ages Prematurely

Although your skin already has the genetic blueprints for how it will age, several external factors can play a role in your facial appearance. When these factors lead to wrinkles, spots, and other marks early on, before your skin would have otherwise aged naturally, it's known as premature aging.

There are many common culprits of premature aging, and they can affect the skin in different ways:

  • Sun exposure and tanning beds: Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight and indoor tanning lamps can damage the skin's DNA and affect elastin and collagen, the proteins that give skin its flexibility and bounce. This photoaging can also lead to dark areas of skin, including age spots and actinic keratosis.
  • Smoking: The more than 4,000 chemicals in smoking tobacco, such as nicotine, can lead to breakdowns in collagen and elastin while reducing access to vitamin-rich blood flow. These effects contribute to leathery and dull skin known as "smoker's face."
  • Pollution: Substances that affect air quality—such as smoke, car exhaust, or ground-level ozone—can disrupt the skin's barrier, strip it of moisture, and leave it more prone to wrinkles and spots.

How to Prevent Signs of Aging

Although aging is indeed a natural process, there's a lot you can do to help your skin age gracefully. That starts with developing consistent healthy habits that can support your skin from head to toe:

  • Use sunscreen: Wear sunscreen daily to protect your skin from UV rays, and reapply often. Everyone needs a broad-spectrum, water-resistant product with an SPF of 30 or more—but for added support, look for an all-mineral solution rich in antioxidants such as EltaMD UV Glow Broad-Spectrum 36, or a revitalizing sunscreen like EltaMD UV Restore Broad-Spectrum SPF 40, which can improve skin smoothness, minimize dark spots and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Stop smoking: Quitting smoking supports nearly every aspect of your health, including your skin's resilience and youthfulness.
  • Moisturize and strengthen: A strong skin barrier is key to protecting your skin health. After cleansing, use a daily moisturizer to replenish and retain the skin's natural suppleness. For extra recovery power and daily protection from skin-aging pollutants, build a skin care regimen with skin-repairing amino acids and includes moisturizer, serum, and toner, such as EltaMD's Skin Recovery System.

Young or old, skin is beautiful. Nobody can rewind the clock, but you can help your skin be its best at every age. With good habits, you can ensure that every wrinkle is just a part of the plan.