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.
What Is Crepey Skin?
Interviewed for New Beauty, Sacramento, CA dermatologist Suzanne Kilmer, MD explains that “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.
In this same article, New York dermatologist Macrene Alexiades, MD compares it 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? While wrinkles are caused by repeated motions in an area, creepy skin is primarily caused by skin thinness.
Dr. Alexiades explains that “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?
Once you reach your 40s, skin thinning accelerates over the course of months or years.
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:
Cause of Crepey Skin #1: 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.
Cause of Crepey Skin #2: 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.
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.
Cause of Crepey Skin #3: 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.
This is because nicotine causes the blood vessels in the outer layers of your skin to narrow, resulting in decreased blood flow. Once this occurs, your skin can’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs, resulting in dry, crepey skin.
Additionally, the chemicals in tobacco smoke also damage collagen and elastin, which by this point you’re aware act as the underlying support and source of elasticity for skin. As a result? Smoking causes the skin to prematurely appear crepey and sag.
Cause of Crepey Skin #4: A Diet High in Sugar
According to a 2012 Elle article, “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 article continues: “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.”
How to Prevent or Minimize Your Chances of Crepey Skin
Sure, everyone knows the basics such as getting adequate sleep, drinking plenty of water, reducing stress, and avoiding negative lifestyle factors like alcohol and cigarettes. But, what else can you do to minimize premature aging and the resultant crepey skin?
1. Eat a diet low in sugar and processed foods
Eating lots of vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and omega–3 fats can help slow 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 doesn’t contain a moisturizer, then adding a light moisturizer to your regimen during the day and a heavier formula at night—both with alpha, beta–hydroxy acid, or glycolic acid—can help your skin cells retain moisture and retain their plumpness.
Why? They make it easier to get rid of dead skin cells, allowing newer, plumper cells to make their way to the surface. They also hydrate skin while repairing collagen and elastin.
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:
- Do Crepey Skin Creams Work? How to Combat Aging Skin
- How to Get Rid of Crepey Skin on Legs: Treatments & Creams That Can Help
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