What Causes Crepey Skin (and How It’s Different From Wrinkles)

Crepey, wrinkly, papery, crinkly—whatever you call it, the tissue paper-thin skin that starts to appear on places around your body, from neck to knees, is one of the most difficult signs of skin aging to battle.

That’s because the number of areas thin, crinkly skin can appear is only outnumbered by how many factors can contribute to skin crepe-ing.

The Characteristics of Crepey Skin

Skin that has turned crepey is thin, loose and flaccid with a certain degree of sagging—particularly in comparison to the plump thickness of the younger skin.

Often compared to a piece of tissue paper or a crêpe (hence the phrase ‘crepey skin’), it’s the thinning of the dermis and epidermis that make skin take on a thin, crinkly texture.

How does crepey skin differ from wrinkles or other types of aging skin? Whereas a stretch mark is the cause of a tear in the skin and a loss of elastin, and a wrinkle forms from repeat motions in one area, crepey skin is more so the result of a lack of skin thickness.

Crepey skin first appears as an increase in skin markings, which look like little dots around the hair follicle that start to merge into linear or diamond-shaped marks and connect the dots together.

Over time, the subtle creases and pores in the skin slowly become exaggerated as the breakdown of collagen and elastin becomes more evident. From there, skin folds accumulate, and skin starts to thin out. 

What Causes Crepey Skin

As you enter your 40s, the thinning of your skin accelerates. This isn’t a change you’ll see overnight—it’s likely to take months, or even years, for the texture of your skin to transform.

The transformation occurs as the body slows down its production of elastin and collagen, the proteins that allow skin to stretch and contract. And while aging skin is inevitable, there are a few factors that can cause a skin to become prematurely crepey.

Weight Gain, Weight Loss, and Weight Fluctuations 

Ever hear the saying “After forty, you have to choose between your waist and your face”? When your body gains weight, it increases the number of fat cells underneath the skin.

Those filled-out fat cells lend a thickness to skin that plumps out lines, wrinkles, and pores—which is why people who carry extra pounds will look younger.

Of course, carrying extra pounds has many negative implications for your health. And, depending on how rapidly the weight was gained, it also has adverse effects on your skin—effects that often aren’t noticeable until the weight is lost.

That’s because excessive weight gain affects the deeper layers of your skin, the dermis, which contains the important proteins, collagen, and elastin.

When the skin is stretched too much through weight gain, those proteins tear and break. The loss of elasticity and strength in your skin can result in crepe-ing.

Weight fluctuations, often a side effect of yo-yo dieting, make the risk of crepey skin even greater. Similar to a rubber band, skin will bounce back when stretched out—but, only a finite number of times.

As you get older, your skin’s elasticity weakens, so repeatedly expanding and constricting further encourages think, loose skin.

Crepey skin caused by frequent weight fluctuations is particularly noticeable in the jowls and neck, where the skin is especially thin and lacks the supportive tissue needed to help it bounce back.

Sun Exposure

That sunbathing damages skin is no surprise—overexposure to UV light causes a process called ‘cross-linking,’ which turns naturally supple collagen molecules stiff and inflexible. [1]

In addition to damaging collagen and elastin, sun exposure also causes your body to create melanin—the pigment responsible for your glowing tan. But, with the creation of melanin comes free radicals, reactive atoms, and molecules that cause damage to living tissue.

In the case of free radicals caused by sun exposure, your skin goes into a state of inflammation—which is why you’ll turn lobster-red after spending too much time in the sun.

While the redness fades, repeated exposure leads to freckling, uneven pigmentation, enlarged blood vessels, and, of course, crepey skin. [2]

Cigarette Smoke

Smoking speeds up the normal aging process of your skin, contributing to crepey texture at an earlier age.

Even scarier? The changes can occur after only ten years of smoking! Not to mention that the more cigarettes you smoke—and the longer you smoke—the more skin wrinkling and crepe-ing you’re likely to have.

And smoking doesn’t only cause crepey skin around your mouth, either. The habit is associated with crepey skin on all parts of your body, including inner arms, chest, and above the knees.

How does smoking cause crepey skin? The nicotine in cigarettes causes narrowing of the blood vessels in the outermost layers of your skin, which impairs blood flow.

With less blood flow, your skin doesn't get as much oxygen and important nutrients, such as vitamin A, which contributes to a smoker’s skin taking on that dry, leathery look.

Additionally, many of the more than 4,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke also damage collagen and elastin, which by this point you’re aware are the sources of skin’s strength and elasticity. As a result? Smoking causes the skin to prematurely appear crepey and sag.

A Diet High in Sugar

When you have sugar molecules in your system, they bombard the body's cells like a meteor shower—glomming onto fats and proteins in a process known as glycation.

This forms advanced glycation end products (commonly shortened, appropriately, to AGEs), which cause protein fibers to become stiff and malformed.

The proteins in skin most prone to glycation are the same ones that make a youthful complexion so plump and springy—again, collagen and elastin.

When those proteins hook up with renegade sugars, they become discolored, weak, and less supple; this shows up on the skin's surface as wrinkles, sagginess, and crepey-ness.

And the double whammy? The presence of AGEs also makes your complexion more vulnerable to bad-news assailants such as UV light and cigarette smoke.

See Also: Sugar Versus Artificial Sweeteners: What’s Better for You?

How to Prevent or Minimize Your Chances of Crepey Skin

In addition to getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water, reducing stress, and avoiding alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs, there are several specific steps you can take to minimize the effects of aging on your skin:

1. Eat a diet low in sugar and processed foods

Following an insulin-balancing diet rich in vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and omega–3 fats, such as those found in salmon and swordfish, can help slow the process of glycation—the chemical reaction that causes your skin to become less supple. 

2. Drink green tea

Superstar multitasker green tea has been proven to significantly interfere with the glycation process while stimulating collagen creation—so if you're drinking it regularly, you're already protecting your skin. 

3. Wear sunscreen

If you try only one thing to prevent crepey skin, make it sunscreen. Protect your skin from the sun by wearing an SPF 15 or above daily. And, not just on your face! Crepey skin occurs below the chin, so your protection should include every bit of exposed skin, from head and shoulders, down to knees and toes.

4. Moisturize your skin

If your sunscreen formula is not in a moisturizing base, then finish off your daily skincare regimen with a light moisturizer for day and a richer formula for the evening.

This helps keep much-needed moisture in your skin cells and will keep them plumped up during the day and night. Use skin care products that contain alpha or beta–hydroxy acid or glycolic acid.

The hydroxy acids help dissolve the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together, thus resulting in easier removal so that new plumper cells can rise to the surface. These emollients also increase the hydration of the skin, and they encourage the repair of elastin and collagen.

Looking for Products to Treat Your Crepey Skin?

Does having skin that starts to have a mind of its own mean you’re stuck living with it? While some cosmetics brands would have you believe that their products can make a difference, it can be difficult to decide which are worth your hard-earned money.

Want to learn what to look for? While there’s no magic bullet to treat crepey skin, we take a closer look at which ingredients are vital in the race to escape skin-crepe.

Check out what we found in part two of our crepey skin series: Do Crepey Skin Creams Work? How to Combat Aging Skin

References:

  1. A Review of Collagen Cross-Linking in Aging
  2. Free-radical theory of aging

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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