Wrinkles may be a natural part of the aging process, but can stress speed things up? Here's what doctors have to say.
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A portrait of a woman with paper wrinkles overlaid on her with a designed background
Credit: Getty Images / Jun

Stress isn't always a bad thing. This naturally occurring physiological response can engage our fight-or-flight response and allow us to cope with potentially dangerous situations. And while this rush of chemicals throughout our bodies can be advantageous, a perpetual state of stress (also called chronic stress) can have negative health implications if left untreated. It can even cause premature wrinkles.

"Chronic stress can lead to insulin resistance, which in turn causes higher levels of blood sugar which then contributes to glycation," says Stacy Chimento, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Florida.

What is glycation, exactly? "[It's] a process which is caused by the presence of excess glucose in skin fibers," says Michael Somenek, M.D., a board-certified facial plastic surgeon. "Proteins with a slow turnover rate, such as collagen I and IV, as well as long-lived proteins, such as fibronectin, are primary targets of the glycation reaction in the skin. It is an extremely important factor in the aging process, as there are specific factors that can accelerate the rate of glycation."

Translation? "Glycation can hinder the elasticity in skin tissue, causing wrinkles to form earlier than they would otherwise," adds Chimento.

What Causes Wrinkles?

Wrinkles are mainly caused by our body's natural aging process. "The skin becomes less elastic, drier and thinner as we get older, meaning it is less able to protect itself from damage," explains Somenek. "As we age, the skin cells divide more slowly, and the dermis begins to thin."

Our skin is made of collagen and elastin fibers, which help keep it firm. These fibers become looser and thinner over time, which makes our skin lose elasticity and causes sagging and wrinkles. Somenek adds, "Aging skin is also less efficient in secreting oil, less able to retain moisture and heals more slowly. All of these factors contribute to the formation of wrinkles."

The Connection Between Stress and Wrinkles

"As we age, the body produces less collagen," says Somenek. "Stress also decreases collagen production and can cause inflammation in the body. Inflammation makes collagen less flexible and stiffer, and when collagen degradation occurs, collagen's contribution to wound healing and skin repair is impaired."

Chimento explains that stress can reduce the skin's elasticity and even cause changes to the proteins in our skin. "The loss of elasticity can lead to wrinkles and the repeated furrowing of your brow due to stress may also contribute to wrinkles. Stress can also cause wrinkles to form because high amounts of cortisol (the stress hormone) can break down the skin's collagen and elastin. Stress also causes inflammation and impairs the body's ability to repair itself," she adds.

How to Prevent Wrinkles

Wrinkles vary from person to person based on genetic and environmental factors such as sun exposure, dehydration, smoking, frowning, smiling and squinting, Somenek says. While there's not much you can do about your genetics, here are nine ways to help prevent wrinkles, according to Somenek and Chimento.

1. Wear Sunscreen

You should be applying sunscreen every day, in order to ensure the slowing of skin aging. UV rays can penetrate clouds, even on the gloomiest days. Therefore, sunscreens should be used no matter the weather. Wearing light-colored clothes that reflect the sun, sunglasses and hats for further protection can also help.

2. Drink Plenty of Water

Aside from being essential for good health in general, drinking water helps keep your skin healthy from the inside. While drinking water won't prevent wrinkles, staying hydrated can help make your skin more elastic.

3. Relax Your Face

Facial movements like frowning, pursing your lips and even squinting can speed the formation of wrinkles. Therefore, look for ways to keep yourself from repeating these movements. For example, if you find yourself frowning or squinting at your computer screen, take small breaks throughout the day.

4. Stop Smoking

Smoking can expedite the aging process immensely, as it causes wrinkles and makes the skin look dull. (Here are some helpful smoking cessation tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

5. Be Gentle with Your Skin

You should wash your face with a gentle cleanser. Rubbing or tugging at the skin can cause irritation and speed up skin aging. (This gentle cleanser from Cetaphil is great and can be found at most drugstores. Buy it: $8, Target)

6. Consider Using a Retinoid

Derived from vitamin A, retinoids increase collagen production, which keeps the skin plump. They also encourage skin regeneration and the creation of new blood vessels, improving the overall look and texture of the skin. (FYI, don't use retinoids if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, and if you do use a retinoid, always wear SPF since they can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.)

7. Moisturize Regularly

Moisturizing regularly helps nourish and hydrate the skin, which is especially important as you get older and your skin is more prone to dryness and wrinkles. Look for a moisturizer with ingredients such as hyaluronic acid (such as this one from Youth to the People; buy it: Sephora, $48).

8. Schedule a Chemical Peel

With a peel, a chemical solution is applied to your skin, causing dead skin to shed off. This leaves room for new regenerated skin to grow, which tends to be smoother than the old skin. Just make sure to go to a dermatologist for a chemical peel, and stay out of the sun afterwards.

9. Get a Good Wrinkle Cream

Over-the-counter wrinkle creams can work, but the active ingredient concentration can differ from prescriptions (which can affect how well they work). Dermatologists typically recommend looking for creams with retinol, copper peptides, antioxidants and alpha hydroxy acids (AHA). Ask your dermatologist which OTC formula (or prescription) could work best for you.

10. Ask About Botox or Fillers

While cosmetic procedures are definitely a personal choice, Botox and fillers can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Botox and several types of filler are approved by the FDA for cosmetic use, but it's worth talking to your dermatologist about which option may be right for you.