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Last updated September 9, 2020. 10 minute read

Fine lines: how they form and how to prevent them

The only real difference between fine lines and wrinkles is the depth of the crease. Fine lines are shallower than wrinkles but may progress to wrinkles over time. A fine line forms when the skin creases—generally as a natural part of forming a facial expression.

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD

They’re named after crows, bunnies, and accordions, but they cause bigger reactions than any of those three things ever could. They’re the fine lines and wrinkles that form on your face. We’ll save you the concerned look that may deepen those expression lines: Here’s what you need to know about fine lines and the strategies that have proven effective at minimizing them (if that’s your thing).


  • Collagen and elastin fibers give structure to your skin that keeps it supple and smooth.
  • These structures can break down as part of the natural aging process and as a result of external factors like sun exposure and smoking.
  • When these fibers break down, it causes the creases known as fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Various products and therapeutic treatments can diminish the look of fine lines.

The only real difference between fine lines and wrinkles is the depth of the crease. Fine lines are shallower than wrinkles but may progress to wrinkles over time. A fine line forms when the skin creases—generally as a natural part of forming a facial expression. Over time, repetitive movements of your facial muscles can make these lines permanent. This inability of your skin to bounce back like it did when you were younger is a natural (if not very welcome) process caused by a breakdown in elastin and collagen production.

What causes fine lines?

Most of us are spared from fine lines and wrinkles until our late 20s or early 30s. As we age, the underlying structure of our skin—which gives it that supple, firm, elastic look—starts to break down. Under the top layer of our skin (known as the epidermis) is another layer called the dermis. 

It’s this layer that contains structures called collagen and elastin fibers that support the epidermis above. Essentially, the dermis is the foundation on which the epidermis is built. As we age, elastin and collagen fibers naturally degrade. And, just like a house with a crumbling foundation, parts of the epidermis start to fall in without their necessary supports, creating the creases we call fine lines and wrinkles.


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We may not enjoy the process, but it’s normal. Unfortunately, there are factors that may accelerate this process, causing fine lines to form even earlier. Environmental factors and habits like smoking may speed skin aging, but sun damage is the biggest external factor. The ultraviolet (UV) part of the sun’s rays causes the breakdown of the elastin and collagen fibers, leading to photodamage and premature aging (Avci, 2013).

How to get rid of fine lines

First things first: While surgical options can offer dramatic results, nothing will permanently erase fine lines and wrinkles and prevent new ones from showing up. But there are several skincare products and dermatological treatments that can give you that smooth-skin look you’re after, at least temporarily. 

We’ll let you know how long the results may last, although people and skin types respond differently, so results may vary. Topical products can also be effective, especially if you’re starting to address fine lines early, but it’s worth noting that you only reap the benefits of these skincare products as long as you use them. Their effects will start to wear off as soon as you stop. 

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Retinoids are a class of synthetic or naturally occurring substances related to retinol, which is also known as vitamin A. Derivatives of vitamin A, such as tretinoin and retinoic acid, are also frequently used in the clinical treatment of various skin conditions. Retinoids increase skin cell turnover, or how quickly your body makes new layers and sheds old ones. That means using these products regularly can help reveal younger-looking skin below. But they also boost your skin cells’ ability to replenish their collagen, supporting that structure that keeps skin plump and smooth (Mukherjee, 2006).

We mentioned that photodamage is one of the major contributors to the formation of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinoids combat photodamage. Tretinoin, specifically, has been shown to improve the elasticity and appearance of sun-damaged skin. And they may be able to help prevent future fine lines from affecting how UV light interacts with the structure of your skin. Retinoids block the breakdown of collagen this kind of light typically causes (Mukherjee, 2006). It’s still important, though, to apply sunscreen of at least SPF 30 before going out in the sun when using retinoids.

Serums with antioxidants 

Antioxidants can help protect us from damage that comes from within our own bodies. A natural byproduct of our cells is something called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can be harmful to our bodies (Schieber, 2014). Antioxidants can help protect us from this kind of damage and are, therefore, popular ingredients in skincare products. Vitamin C is a great example of antioxidants that may help combat some of the factors that contribute to skin aging.

Vitamin C skincare products are a great choice since there’s plenty of research on their effects. Research has shown that topical vitamin C can significantly decrease the appearance of fine lines (Traikovich, 1999), improve photodamage (including lessening deep furrows in the skin) (Humbert, 2003), and boost the production of collagen (Nusgens, 2001).


It sounds simple, but consistent application of moisturizer really can help diminish the appearance of fine lines. Along with elastin and collagen fibers, our skin is also home to glycosaminoglycans, or GAGs. GAGs are molecules that love water and pull it into the cells. By holding onto water, GAGs help give your skin volume and firmness. 

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The problem is, GAGs can’t do this job effectively in photoaged skin so that moisture they can no longer hold needs to be added (Ganceviciene, 2012). Moisturizers can help counter the appearance of a loss of structure caused by photoaging, but it may not be enough to fully smooth out fine lines. 

Another term you may have heard when it comes to skincare is hyaluronic acid. It is made naturally by our bodies and, like GAGs, is great at holding onto moisture. As we age, it’s one more thing we lose (Ganceviciene, 2012). 

Fortunately, there are plenty of skincare products on the market now, from cleansers to serums and eye creams that use hyaluronic acid to help counter this natural loss and keep skin dewy by allowing the skin to better absorb moisturizers. Hyaluronic acid injections are also available. Also called hyaluronic acid fillers, these injections can be used to fill in wrinkles, plump lips, or counter volume lost in the cheeks (Gold, 2007).

Chemical Peels

Chemical peels are dermatological treatments that remove the surface layers of old and dead skin cells in order to reveal younger and tighter-looking skin below. There are three different types of chemical peels: superficial peels, medium-depth peels, and deep peels. The names refer to how much skin is removed or how deep into the layers of skin the peel penetrates. 

Generally, these treatments use the same active compounds and vary only in terms of concentration, increasing the depth of their effects. Deep peels have been shown to increase collagen fibers, water, and GAGs in the dermis, though researchers aren’t quite sure how exactly they work (Ganceviciene, 2012). 

Restoring some of these structural elements of the skin may help decrease the appearance of wrinkles. People can typically return to work and normal activities two weeks after getting a deep chemical peel, according to Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr. Michele Green, and the downtime is shorter for milder treatments.

The same active ingredients used in chemical peels are available for at-home use—just in much milder formulations. Hydroxy acids, a group of chemicals that include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, are common ingredients in skincare products available over the counter at typical concentrations of 5-10%. These compounds can help brighten the skin and reduce the look of fine lines. Past research has shown that hydroxy acids can increase skin cell turnover. Alpha-hydroxy acids also reduce the skin’s protection from UVA rays, though, so it’s important to wear sunscreen when using these products (Tang, 2018).

Laser treatment

There are a wide variety of laser treatments, and the procedures may help with several skin concerns, including the look of fine lines. The biggest differences in these laser treatments from a patient’s perspective are healing time and cost. Laser treatments that may help diminish fine lines include:

  • Nonablative resurfacing lasers (Fraxel Restore)
  • Ablative resurfacing lasers (Fraxel, Sciton Profractional)
  • LLLT (low-level light therapy) lasers

Laser treatments work by causing microscopic damage to the skin. While that might sound counterintuitive, it actually gives the skin a chance to regenerate and replenish itself with new collagen, improving firmness and alleviating elements that contribute to the development of fine lines (Ganceviciene, 2012). 

Laser resurfacing treatments typically work best when done in series. However, recovery after each treatment can take weeks, so your dermatologist or skin specialist can offer a personally tailored schedule for just how frequently you should have them done. While the results aren’t permanent, some of the stronger treatments can have effects that last years. Some more intense lasers, such as Fraxel and Thermage, have results that can last two years, Dr. Green says.

Low-level laser (light) therapy or LLLT uses LED lights and has been shown to reduce the appearance of wrinkles by clearing out damaged collagen fibers and laying down new ones. In contrast to other laser therapies, LLLT is not nearly as harsh on the skin. This means that downtime is typically a non-issue, and there are even at-home devices available on the market. 

Research shows that patients are satisfied with their results, too. Of those who got just an LED treatment, 90% said they noticed that their skin was softer, the texture was more even, and their fine lines diminished. Past studies that looked at the effects of treatments done twice a week found no side effects from the treatment (Avci, 2013).


During this procedure, a dermatologist uses needles to create thousands of pricks in the skin, which may or may not be accompanied by the application of serums designed to address specific skin concerns. Research has found that micro-needling boosts the production of elastin and collagen fibers as well as capillaries, leading to these supportive skin structures. The result is firmer, younger-looking skin after six micro-needling sessions done at two-week intervals. But you may see even better results if your dermatologist uses tretinoin, a retinoid, or vitamin C serum during the procedures (Singh, 2016). 

Although there are at-home devices for micro-needling, you will likely need to see a dermatologist for best results. There’s a big difference between their professional-grade equipment and these at-home tools. Professional treatments puncture between 0.25 mm and 2 mm, while many at-home devices have needles with lengths from 0.25–0.3 mm. The shorter needles open shorter channels in the epidermal barrier, which may affect your results in two ways: 

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First, these smaller punctures may not activate wound healing to the same degree and, by extension, the skin benefits that come with it; secondly, smaller channels don’t allow products such as serums to penetrate as deeply into the skin, which means you’re not seeing the full efficacy of the skincare products (Singh, 2016).


Not to be confused with micro-needling, there are no needles involved in this dermatological procedure. The topmost layers of old and dead skin cells (called the stratum corneum) are removed during a microdermabrasion session in order to reveal brighter, younger-looking skin below. 

When your body creates new epidermal (skin) cells, they’re added as the bottom-most layer of your skin and slowly work their way toward the surface as the dead cells on the top are shed (Zasada, 2019). So the skin revealed after an exfoliating microdermabrasion session is, in fact, newer skin than what you’ve been looking at in the mirror.

There’s evidence that it works, too. In one small study that had participants undergo microdermabrasion sessions once a week for six weeks, fine lines were improved by week three. By week six, participants noticed a reduction in the visibility of fine lines (Spencer, 2006). But further research has found that the treatment goes deeper than previously thought. 

Microdermabrasion causes an increase in collagen fiber density, which may improve the suppleness of the skin and smooth the look of fine lines. The technique is also favored for its ability to improve skin penetration when combined with various skincare products like AHAs and vitamin C, allowing them to be delivered precisely to where they work best (Shah, 2020).

How to prevent fine lines and wrinkles

Combatting sun damage, the biggest external contributor to fine lines and wrinkles is a huge step in the right direction. That means always wearing sunscreen of at least SPF 30 when you know you’ll be exposed to sunlight, no matter your age. The earlier you start consistently applying sunscreen, the more UV damage you can prevent. Cigarette smoke is also a major culprit in skin aging—just one more reason to avoid it (Morita, 2007). Staying healthy by eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water, and exercising may improve your overall health, skin included.

Botulinum toxin (or Botox, as it’s usually referred to) has also gained traction in recent years as a favorable way to improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Injected into the skin by a skincare professional, botulinum toxin is what’s called a neuromodulator, meaning it alters the way your nerves control your facial muscles, temporarily freezing your facial muscles. 

This can smooth existing fine lines and wrinkles, an effect that lasts roughly four months, and may help prevent or delay the development of future wrinkles. Since some fine lines and wrinkles form from the repetitive use of the muscle or formation of a facial expression coupled with the deterioration of structural fibers under the skin, freezing the muscles prevents these repetitive movements and reduces the development of those signs of natural aging. 

If you’re considering a neuromodulator—Botox isn’t the only one on the market. Talk to your dermatologist to learn about the various options.