There are four types of connective tissue in the body. The connective tissue found in bones is rigid, while the connective tissue in cartilage is more pliable and in the blood and lymph systems it is more fluid. The fourth type of connective tissue has a cushiony consistency and is crucial to organ function. Within the body’s largest organ, the skin, this connective tissue provides structure and support, and is comprised of a matrix of fibers. One of these fibrous elements is called elastin.
Elastin is a protein that gives skin its resiliency. Each elastin molecule is highly cross-linked and has the ability to uncoil when stretched and then recoil when relaxed. Working in tandem with collagen, elastin helps the skin to return to its previous shape and tightness after a variety of stresses.
During an activity like yawning, sitting, or exercise, elastin allows the skin to elongate without tearing. Upon completion of the activity, elastin works to contract the skin while maintaining its smoothness. In the case of inflammation, such as a bee sting, acne, or eczema, the skin swells and then resumes its pre-inflammation texture thanks in part to the elastic properties of elastin. And when the skin is injured - for example, by pinching, wounds or burns - elastin has a fundamental role in restoring the structure to the damaged skin.
Many factors can compromise the skin’s ability to bounce back. Extreme weight gain or loss, including yo-yo dieting, weakens the elastin fibers, resulting in sagging skin and stretch marks. Without protection, the sun’s UV rays can penetrate the skin at the cellular level and break down elastin. The skin often becomes wrinkled and discolored over time due to prolonged sun exposure. Heredity, hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, smoking, stress, and a poor diet may also contribute to the skin gradually loosing its firmness. And because the body stops producing elastin come puberty, aging skin is not as resilient. Common symptoms of diminishing elastin include bags under the eyes, loose jowls, a turkey neck and an overall loss of youthful plumpness to skin.
Certain lifestyle choices will help protect and maintain a body’s reserve of elastin. Because free radicals are known to damage cellular tissue, it is important to reduce their intake. This means avoiding the consumption of chemical additives and chemically-processed foods. Instead, opting for antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts - in addition to incorporating flavonoids in a balanced diet - is recommended. Exercising and staying hydrated not only promotes circulation, it encourages the lymphatic system to drain toxins from the connective tissues and all areas of the body. Inhaling environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke, pesticides and pollution also makes elastin vulnerable to free radical reactions. To further preserve elastin stores, it is beneficial to minimize exposure to airborne contaminants, as well as manage stress, protect the skin from the sun, and get the recommended amount of sleep.
The skin care industry offers many solutions for depleted elastin. Serums and creams containing elastin can be applied topically. There are also treatments designed to help the skin boost its own elastin levels. These treatments can come in many forms including cleansers, toners, masks, creams and serums. Many anti-aging treatments are designed in part to boost elastin levels so that fine lines and wrinkles are less apparent and the skin takes on a firmer and tighter tone. Dermatologists also recommend using a broad spectrum sunscreen on a daily basis to help reduce potential skin damage that can lead to a drop in elastin levels. This is particularly important for anyone taking medications or using topical products that make the skin more sensitive to the sun. By combining an effective skin care regimen that includes both preventive steps and treatment products along with a healthy lifestyle, people of all ages can help keep their elastin at the healthiest levels possible as they age over the years.
Elastin gene therapy research is ongoing. The goal is to be able to harvest cells to grow into connective tissue that can be implanted into a body. In addition to bone, cartilage, and organ repair, elastin gene therapy would have a significant impact on the skin care industry.