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Skin can take quite a beating during the average lifetime. It’s the body’s first defense against the outside world, so it’s no surprise that it pays a hefty price at the hands of age. Among factors such as smoking, UV exposure and the natural breakdown of proteins, the skin will begin to lose it’s natural elasticity over time. But why?

The first thing to know about the body’s largest organ is that the skin is composed of two specific layers: the epidermis and the dermis. While the epidermis protects your body against environmental hazards, the dermis is made up of the proteins and collagens responsible for skin’s elasticity. And while it is still unknown how these two layers interact over time or why exactly the skin is unable to “bounce back” from certain damages, scientists have several theories as to why the skin faces irreparable damage with age.

Medical News Today explores three major reasons why skin loses its youthful appearance.

First, the dermis is made up of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins that are produced by fibroblast cells, located between these proteins. Over time, protein structures become fragmented, and the ECM loses its stability. This causes fibroblasts to lose their ECM connections, in turn causing the fibroblasts to lose their shape and impairing the cell’s function, effectively reducing their protein production. All of this furthers the breakdown of the ECM network and throws the cell into spiraling degeneration.

The second reason is based on the potential impact of UV exposure on the skin’s aging process. In laboratory studies, UV exposure did not have a direct impact on fibroblasts themselves. However, scientists hypothesize that cells in the epidermis respond to UV exposure by releasing chemicals that can diffuse into the dermis. These chemicals can lead to enzyme release in dermal fibroblasts, resulting in deep wrinkles.

Finally, scientists point to the fat layer below the skin as a third culprit of aging. While UV rays cannot reach below the skin, a recent discovery of a new type of fat depot within the deep dermis can be reached by UV light via the upper dermis and chemicals released by cells in the epidermis. These fat cells can die in response to chronic UV damage, to be replaced by scar tissue.

While there is no complete answer to the natural aging process, science is doing its best. In the meantime, reducing your exposure to toxins and UV light may assist in slowing the skin’s degeneration.

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