Is Your Skin Aging Faster Than You Are?

Genetics, smoking, and sun can make you look older, but doctors say there are ways to fight back.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 25, 2005
7 min read

How well your face reflects your age depends on a combination of genetics and lifestyle.

"It seems as though some people are genetically programmed to age slower with regard to skin texture, tone, and laxity," says Mary C. Massa, MD, a professor of dermatology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

"They are just lucky and should thank their parents," Massa says. "I often see African-Americans whose skin looks very youthful compared to their age. Very fair, slim individuals seem more prone to developing lines in the cheeks sooner."

Lifestyle factors that can speed the pace of aging skin include smoking, use of tanning beds, and sun exposure. The sun begins leaving its mark during the first years of life, says Tamara Lior, MD, chairwoman of the department of dermatology at Cleveland Clinic Florida.

"Freckles in young kids are evidence of sun damage," she tells WebMD. In fact, the amount of sun you got as a child has a lot to do with your skin's appearance today.

To find out if you look older than you are, take the quiz below. Keep in mind that the results are based on typical skin characteristics for each age group. There is no universal pattern for aging skin, and appearances can vary widely among individuals of the same age.

For each category, choose the letter that best describes the current state of your skin.

  1. Skin texture:
    1. Plump and smooth
    2. Mostly smooth with some dry or flaky spots
    3. Uneven with rough spots and dryness becoming more common
    4. Thin and dry with some sagging along the jaw line
    5. Dry and crepe-like with heavy sagging and deep creases
  1. Skin tone:
    1. Radiant and glowing with mostly even color
    2. Less radiant with some discoloration from sun exposure
    3. Less radiant with moderate discoloration (such as patches of small brown spots)
    4. Dull with blotchy, uneven color and well-defined age spots
    5. Dull and "pasty" with numerous age spots and/or yellowish discoloration
  1. Fine lines & wrinkles:
    1. Few, if any
    2. Faint lines around the eyes or between the eyebrows
    3. Lines in the forehead and around the eyes or mouth, even when the face is relaxed
    4. Deeper lines around the eyes, from the nose to the mouth, and from the corners of the mouth down; fine lines on the cheeks
    5. Deep wrinkles in the cheeks and upper lips in addition to the lines in part "d"
If you chose mostly:Your skin is typical of a person in their:


The No. 1 antiaging potion for all age groups is, of course, sunscreen. For people in their 20s, who have yet to see much evidence of sun damage, it may be tempting to skip the daily application. But Lior says the earlier you start using sunscreen, the more damage you can prevent. If you want to avoid an extra step in your morning routine, look for makeup or moisturizers that include a sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher.

Lior also recommends people in their 20s begin getting screened for precancerous lesions. "Precancers called actinic keratoses begin to show in the 20s and 30s, particularly in fair-skinned people who spend a lot of time in the sun. A few of those people will actually have skin cancers that early, which is the scary part."

If found early, actinic keratoses can be removed before they have a chance to become cancerous. The American Academy of Dermatology describes them as rough, red, scaly patches, or crusts commonly found on the sides of the forehead, the ears, the scalp of bald men, and the backs of the hands. The lesions range from the size of a pinhead to larger than a quarter. While skin cancer is hardly on the minds of most young adults, Massa says it's never too soon to start checking your skin. "Examine your own skin once a month and if you see anything changing or new, get it checked."

"Patients in their 30s are often concerned about keeping their skin healthier, more radiant, and more even in color," Massa tells WebMD. "They may notice more brown spots related to sun exposure or may feel their skin has a duller look."

One way to improve skin tone is to look for products containing retinol and alpha-hydroxy acids. These products are available over the counter, although stronger solutions require a prescription. For more dramatic results, Massa says, "Light chemical peels can make the skin look smoother, more radiant and more refreshed."

Lior agrees. "The glow or radiance kids have - you lose that with time because your cells don't turn over as often. Chemical peels can assist in this exfoliation process. They allow the radiance and glow to show through by sloughing off the older cells on top."

In addition to changes in skin tone, Massa says people in their 30s may notice their first few wrinkles. "We see a lot of people in the late 20s or early 30s that are starting to see the finest lines around their eyes. They're starting to see the folds between the eyebrows." She says it's not uncommon for women in this age group to request Botox injections to soften lines in the upper face. "Botox is a very appropriate treatment for anyone who is starting to be bothered by lines between the eyebrows, horizontal forehead lines, and crow's feet. However, it is not appropriate for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding."

"In the 40s, everything hits," Massa says. "The skin is duller, not as smooth, not as glowing. There are more problems with pigmentation as sun exposure really catches up with them. There are complaints about lines around the eyes, lines in the forehead, lines around the mouth. The corners of the mouth tend to be a little down-turned, making them look sad when they are not. The lips get smaller. The skin starts to sag."

But Massa insists 40-somethings don't have to take all this lying down. There are chemical peels to even out skin tone, Botox for lines around the eyes, and fillers such as collagen or hyaluronic acid for lines around the mouth. Shrinking lips can be augmented. For sagging skin, Massa recommends Thermage, a procedure that uses heat to tighten and tone the skin without surgery.

In your 50s, Massa says, "all the things that hit in the 40s are deeper and more intense. Fine lines on the cheeks become more of an issue. Lines from the nose to the mouth or from the corners of the mouth down - marionette lines - become deeper. Age spots become more common."

Age spots on the face or hands can be treated with bleaching agents, chemical peels, lasers, or liquid nitrogen. Using sunscreen can prevent new spots from forming. As for the lines, Botox and filler products remain an effective option, but laser skin resurfacing can provide more dramatic results. Massa says superficial or "nonablative" laser treatments can stimulate collagen formation and rejuvenate skin without a lengthy recovery period. "A series of these treatments can soften fine lines on the cheeks, the upper lips or under the eyes."

Lior says patients with deep wrinkles and severe sun damage may want to consider more aggressive carbon dioxide (CO2) laser resurfacing. This technique uses a high-energy laser beam to vaporize outer layers of skin, revealing fresh skin underneath. After several weeks of healing, the patient typically has tighter skin with fewer wrinkles and less discoloration.

People in their 60s and beyond tend to have loose, sagging skin that may appear crepe-like or pebbly. A creamy yellow discoloration is common in fair people of this age, as are wrinkles that extend beyond the eye and mouth areas. "There are many more complaints about lines on the cheeks," Massa says. "Filler products can soften these lines," as can laser treatments.

Massa says most of the strategies for rejuvenating skin in the 40s and 50s can also work for people in their 60s. "The 60s are a very vibrant time for doing all of this. Sixty today isn't like it was in the last generation. People are still working and want to look good throughout their 60s."

If you're unhappy with how your skin is aging, Lior's advice is to "start applying sunscreen, lose the tan, and stop smoking." Then check with your dermatologist to see which procedures might be right for you. "To a point, you can turn back the clock and rejuvenate skin."

Massa adds that turning back the clock no longer requires surgery. "People have many choices to fix problems that are bothering them. The number of options keeps growing, and the products are safer, better, and more versatile than in the past."

Published Sept. 26, 2005.