With so much focus on avoiding facial wrinkles, it’s easy to forget that the skin on our body also ages. Our skin and bodies change with the passage of father time – and usually not in a way we want. Fine lines become more apparent and skin loses some of its youthful luster. By the time you reach your late 40’s or early 50’s, you might discover that the skin on your legs and tummy isn’t as firm or taut as it used to be. That’s not a problem when you’re wearing a pair of long pants, but what if you want to slip on a pair of shorts or a swimsuit? Of course, you want to put your best leg forward!
Let’s look at what’s going on. Saggy skin that’s laxer than it should be is a sign of trouble with collagen and elastin, two proteins that support your skin and give it elasticity. Both of these proteins sustain damage as you age. However, it’s accelerated by four main factors:
· Smoking or excess alcohol use
· Sun exposure
· Hormonal changes that happen after menopause
· Losing a significant amount of weight
These are the major factors that contribute to saggy skin, but nutritional deficiencies may also play a role. For example, a deficiency of vitamin C or vitamin E would accelerate this process, and there’s some evidence that a diet high in sugar can prematurely damage collagen and elastin. Some degree of laxity is simply a product of gravity and chronological aging, but lifestyle can slow the process.
Environmental Skin Damage
Sun exposure is one of the biggest factors that damage the support structure of your skin and leads to skin laxity. In fact, dermatologists believe that 80% of skin aging is directly related to sun exposure. The area that gets the most sun exposure is the face. But, if you laid in the sun to get a tan on your body or visited tanning booths, some of the saggy skin you’re experiencing now may come from these exposures. The damage doesn’t show up for years later. Oh, if only we could undo the past! But, you can start now by wearing a protective sunscreen.
Smoking and Excess Alcohol
Smoking and alcohol are skin-damaging habits we have control over. According to the Mayo Clinic, smoking is the strongest predictor of skin aging in both men and women. That’s because cigarette smoke contains thousands of chemicals that damage the proteins, collagen, and elastin, and make them less capable of keeping your skin taut and tight. Plus, smoking decreases blood flow to the surface of your skin, so your skin gets less oxygen and nutrients. Consuming excess alcohol leads to free radical damage that injuries collagen and elastin and accelerates saggy skin. Plus, alcohol is a diuretic and robs your skin of the water it needs to look firm and healthy.
After menopause, your ovaries decrease estrogen production, although fat cells still produce estrogen. As estrogen falls, skin cells make less collagen and elastin and the collagen and elastin that’s there aren’t repaired as easily. Also, as estrogen goes down, the skin becomes thinner and skin cells turn over more slowly. In addition, skin doesn’t retain water as easily. So, you might notice dry, flaky skin on your body after menopause. But, the sagging and laxity are mainly due to damage and loss of collagen and elastin.
Losing weight is a good thing if it helps you get down to your ideal body weight, but it can do an unexpected number on your skin. When you lose a significant amount of weight, you create empty space and it’s your skin’s job to tighten up enough to cover that space. If you lose weight when you’re young, your collagen and elastin can rise to the task. But, if you lose a lot of weight later in life, the damaged elastin and collagen may not wrap tightly enough. In other words, you’re left with loose, saggy skin. The biggest risk for skin laxity is when you lose a lot of weight, shed the weight quickly, and lose it when you’re over the age of 50.
Is There a Way to Firm Up Saggy Skin?
Despite the ads that want to sell you an expensive product, most skin creams will have little impact on saggy skin. One exception might be products that contain prescription-strength retinoids, derivatives of vitamin A, that are proven to help with skin aging. They work by reducing the breakdown of collagen and elastin and by thickening the deeper layer of the skin called the dermis where most of the collagen lies.
If you apply prescription-strength products with retinoids (available from a dermatologist) to your skin over a long period of time, you may notice a slight tightening of your skin. But, it can be pretty costly putting this product on your body and it’s not indicated for that use. Most people use it to reduce signs of aging on their face to reduce wrinkling and skin discolorations caused by sun exposure and aging.
So, other than prescription retinoids, you probably won’t get a lot of satisfaction from skin creams, no matter how clever the marketing.
Are There Other Alternatives?
Although expensive and not without some risk, body contouring procedures performed by a plastic surgeon can help with skin laxity. Body contouring encompasses a number of procedures. If you have saggy skin in a particular area, say saggy triceps, a plastic surgeon can remove excess tissue and pull the remaining skin taut surgically. A more extreme example is a body lift where a surgeon tightens large areas or even the entire body where skin elasticity is lost. Needless to say, this is a big procedure with a long recovery time. It’s best reserved for people who have lost large amounts of weight and have a large amount of sagging.
Building up the muscle underneath the skin through weight training may modestly improve the appearance of saggy skin and having a more defined muscle calls attention away from skin that’s not as youthful as it used to be.
Maybe the best thing to do is to make peace with your body and accept the small flaws that go with experience and aging. No one is perfect, even a young person. Be the best you can be and don’t sweat the small imperfections!
Mayo Clinic. “Is It True That Smoking Causes Wrinkles?”
Br J Dermatol. 2007 Jan;156(1):85-91.
FineTouchDermatology.com. “Will Alcohol Cause Your Skin to Sag?”
American Academy of Dermatology. “What Causes Our Skin to Age?”
The International Dermal Institute. “How Does Menopause Affect the Skin?”