Wrinkles form when your skin’s connective tissues — collagen and elastin — break down. This process happens naturally over time, and it’s why we tend to develop wrinkles as we grow older.
However, age isn’t the only factor that can lead to wrinkles. Genetics, sunlight exposure, smoking, and — yes — stress can harm the proteins in skin tissue and cause wrinkles.
Does stress cause wrinkles?
Psychological stress can affect the skin. High amounts of cortisol — the stress hormone — can break down the skin’s collagen and elastin, and form wrinkles.
For example, one study found that chronic stress can have negative effects on skin aging and cause wrinkles to form. That’s because stress causes inflammation and impairs the body’s ability to repair itself. Research has found that skin aging is often accompanied with a two to four times increase in plasma levels of inflammation.
Chronic stress can also lead to insulin resistance, says Olga Bunimovich, MD, a dermatologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Inhibited insulin causes higher levels of blood sugar, contributing to a biological process called glycation that hinders elasticity in skin tissue — and may cause wrinkles to form earlier than they would otherwise.
Bunimovich notes that the cumulative stress from the COVID-19 health crisis, economic troubles, and social isolation may cause wrinkles. She recommends getting enough sleep and trying mindfulness meditation to combat high levels of stress.
To reduce stress, Noelani Gonzalez, MD, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, also recommends exercising and keeping up with your routines — especially skincare routines.
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What else causes wrinkles
Once you hit your 20s, your skin produces 1% less collagen every year. Elastin production also decreases as you get older, and the sweat and oil glands in your skin lose some ability to function.
Genetics also determine when and how many wrinkles appear. For example, Gonzalez says that she has seen patients in their 20s with wrinkles and people in their 40s with barely any wrinkles.
Finally, there are a few lifestyle factors that can accelerate wrinkles, including:
- UV exposure. It’s estimated that 90% of visible changes to the skin are caused by sun exposure. UV rays can accelerate skin wrinkling, as it breaks down collagen. To protect your skin from the sun, Cleveland Clinic recommends wearing sunscreen when you have UV exposure and protective clothing while in direct sunlight.
- Smoking cigarettes. According to Mayo Clinic, the nicotine in cigarettes can restrict blood flow to the skin, so it doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to stay healthy. The chemicals in cigarettes — there are more than 4,000 — can also damage the skin’s collagen and elastin.
- Unhealthy diet. Excessive alcohol consumption depletes the skin of vitamin A, which can exacerbate wrinkles. Foods high in refined sugar, such as baked sweets and candy, as well as foods high in trans or saturated fats, such as red meat and dairy, can also contribute to skin aging. According to a 2012 study, consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables can increase the amount of antioxidants in your skin, which slows down the skin aging process.