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The science behind why humans get wrinkly skin as they age and in the bath

Donna Coutts, July 12, 2020 8:45AM Kids News

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As humans age, their skin gradually becomes looser and wrinkles become visible. media_cameraAs humans age, their skin gradually becomes looser and wrinkles become visible.

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Kids mostly have smooth, tight skin. Creases aren’t something you have a lot of, apart from perhaps on your wrists, palms of your hands, fingers and maybe on the soles of your feet (have a look when you next have bare feet).

You may have noticed that as adults get older, their skin is a little looser and more likely to have creases or wrinkles. Really old people sometimes have really wrinkly skin.

Wrinkles are a normal part of ageing. That’s except for the wrinkly fingers and toes people of any age can get when they’ve been in the bath or the pool for too long. Kids News wondered what makes skin go wrinkly. Here’s what we found out.

WHY DO OLDER PEOPLE GET WRINKLES?

Things happen inside your body and to the outside of your body over your life that contribute to your skin’s ageing.

Young, healthy skin has a smooth outer layer called an epidermis that acts as a barrier to stop water and other things from entering your body.

The dermis — the middle layer of skin — has natural substances called collagen (a protein that keeps skin firm) and elastin (fibres that gives skin its stretchiness). Adults’ bodies make about 1 per cent less collagen in their skin each year, so that as we get older, skin gradually gets thinner, more fragile and less firm.

surprised kid sitting at table media_cameraYoung skin is smooth, firm and very elastic with few creases.
media_cameraAs we age, our skin gradually gets looser and wrinkles become visible.

Our environment also makes our skin age: sun and pollution can change your skin’s colour, make it spotty or freckly, dry it out and reduce the amount of collagen and elastin your body makes.

The amount of fat in the innermost layer — called the subcutaneous layer — decreases as we get older, too, so older skin doesn’t look as plump.

WHEN DO PEOPLE GET WRINKLES?

Our skin changes gradually. No one gets up on the morning of their 30th, 40th, 50th or even 90th birthday and suddenly looks old.

Some people start to have fine lines in their 20s, for instance around their mouth or at the side of their eyes where their skin creases when they smile or squint*, or on their forehead when they frown.

People who smoke cigarettes or who spend a lot of time in the sun without sunscreen or a hat tend to have older-looking skin.

Generic Thinkstock images relating to Botox facial beauty treatment. Close up of man with wrinkles on face. media_cameraBeing out in the sun without sunscreen or a hat can age your skin.

If an older person suddenly loses a lot of weight their skin may look noticeably looser or wrinklier.

How early your skin wrinkles can also be inherited* from your parents: some families have skin that stays looking young for longer than other families.

DO OLDER ANIMALS GET WRINKLES?

Animals don’t tend to get wrinkly with age like humans do, because humans live a relatively long life compared to many other species. We have time to get wrinkly.

Dogs and cats that live a long life can get slightly looser skin (and even some grey hair).

Animals with hair or fur have a natural way to protect their sun from damaging UV rays, which contributes to the ageing of humans’ skin.

Some animals are born wrinkly, so that’s nothing to do with age. Have you ever looked at a baby elephant? Super wrinkly! A baby elephant grows into some of its extra skin but it stays pretty wrinkly all its life to increase the surface area of its body, which helps keep it cool.

media_cameraA baby Asian elephant at the Prague Zoo, Czech Republic, April 21, 2020. Elephants are born wrinkly, which gives them room to grow into some of the extra skin. The wrinkles also help keep elephants cool. Picture: AP

WHY DO WE GO WRINKLY IN THE BATH?

No one is really sure.

Over the centuries, scientists explained wrinkly fingers and toes that you get when you stay in the bath or pool for a long time as an accidental side-effect of being wet. They thought it just happened, for no real reason.

In the past few years, some scientists have been testing out hypotheses* to possibly explain what some of us call prune fingers and toes.

Experiments around 2011-12 found that people with wrinkly fingers could more easily pick up marbles. This supported the idea that prune fingers and toes are like the tread on your sports shoes or on the tyres of a bike or car, to stop us slipping on wet surfaces.

Unfortunately, when other scientists tried to repeat these experiments in 2014, they found that having wrinkly fingers made no difference to how well someone could grip an object.

So we still don’t know if wrinkly fingers are just a side-effect of being wet, whether they help us grip things when we’re wet or if there’s some other reason.

Scientists do know that macaques — a type of primate — get similarly pruney fingers and toes in water. They don’t know whether the same thing happens to any other species.

Japanese Macaque family preening media_cameraA family of Japanese macaques — also known as snow monkeys — taking a bath in a hot spring, getting wrinkly fingers and toes. Picture: iStock

GLOSSARY

  • squint: screw up your face to partly shut your eyes to look at something bright
  • inherited: passed down from generation to generation (in this case through genes)
  • hypotheses: plural of hypothesis, a statement you test out to see if it is true

EXTRA READING

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What is ear wax and how big can it grow?

QUICK QUIZ

  1. What are the fibres called the make skin stretchy?
  2. Name the three layers of skin.
  3. Why are elephants wrinkly?
  4. What possible reason could there be for getting wrinkly fingers and toes in water?
  5. What animals do we know get wrinkly fingers in water?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Draw a diagram
The article explains quite clearly the factors that affect the forming of wrinkles on your skin. Draw a labelled diagram (or two diagrams) that show how these things affect wrinkles developing. Your diagram(s) should show both the biological factors (natural) and the environmental factors (external).

You can also include some captions that explain how they affect the forming of wrinkles. (For example, we create less collagen as we get older so our skin gets …)

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

2. Extension
Many people think of wrinkles and old age negatively, but wrinkles are actually a sign of a long life, which is something most of us aspire to.

Create a catch phrase or motto to change the perception of wrinkles from a negative implication to something more positive.

For example: ‘Wrinkles = A life filled with laughter’ or ‘With age comes wrinkles filled with wisdom’ or ‘Live long and get wrinkles!’

Present your phrase or motto on a A4 poster. You can use pictures if you like.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Personal and Social Capability

VCOP ACTIVITY
Verb adventures
With a partner see if you can identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.

Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What science would you like Kids News to explain?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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