The Founder of Strength Bible and fitness enthusiast Ben Hardman takes a look at loose skin versus fat – he helps us understand the difference and how to combat both…
Do you want to make some changes to your body? Have you ever wondered what the difference is between loose skin and fat? How can you tell?
Your skin is an incredible organ, able to stretch or shrink to accommodate your body as it changes. But as drastic changes occur, your skin’s adaptability can become out of sync. It can make things more difficult when distinguishing between loose skin and fat, as well as causing unwanted side issues.
This comprehensive article aims to unpack all the research-backed information and practical advice you need to know with a focus on understanding and shifting loose skin.
The Difference Between Loose Skin And Fat
Although they can look similar to the eye, there are significant differences between loose skin and fat. To understand this, we need to learn a little bit about our skin make-up and where fat cells exist.
There are three main layers to our skin:
- Epidermis: This is the closest layer to the surface and is made up primarily of keratin and melanin.
- Dermis: The middle layer where we find lots of collagen and elastic proteins.
- Hypodermis: Also called the subcutaneous. This is the deepest layer where the majority of our fat cells are. This layer is responsible for energy storage and insulation.
When most people talk about standard body fat, what they are referring to is subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT). This tissue is located in the deepest layer of our skin, the hypodermis, and can be found across your entire body.
So, how does fat get stored in our skin?
In simple terms, when someone eats more calories than they burn, excess energy gets stored as fat. This can be stored in several areas of the body, but one of the main repositories is under the skin as subcutaneous adipose tissue.
As excess chemical energy increases, SAT cells grow in size and eventually multiply in number. As this happens, there’s an increase in tension on the skin. This stretching stimulates the body to create more skin cells to accommodate the extra mass – your skin grows.
To the touch, this fat and skin combination has a soft but fairly solid structure.
Loose skin, on the other hand, is different. It’s much softer to the touch, wrinkly, and can be pinched and pulled away from the body much easier and further than fat can.
With loose skin, all three layers are affected. However, the main problem tends to be in the middle dermis layer, which has lost its structure and become weakened.
What Causes Loose Skin?
Loose skin is all about skin elasticity. Or a lack of it. It can also be compounded by the remaining presence of residual subcutaneous fat.
Below are 5 of the most common causes of loose skin:
As people age, their skin naturally loses elasticity. This is caused by a decrease in the production of collagen networks and elastin fibres. These are two of the key proteins that give skin its stretch and firmness in the dermis layer.
A decrease in production of these proteins causes the skin to lose structure, which results in sagging and looseness. This is a natural process and it happens to everyone.
Collagen production is especially impacted after menopause in women and andropause in males. We also see a decrease in hyaluronic acid at these times, a substance which helps skin retain moisture.
The extent to which skin becomes looser as you age is dependent on genetics and environmental factors throughout your life. Some of these are touched on below.
2. Weight Loss
One of the most common causes of loose skin is weight loss – particularly rapid or significant weight loss.
When a person gains weight, there’s an increase in two things: fat cells to store the fat and skin cells to accommodate this extra mass. This increases the overall surface area our skin covers and it will stay this way until there’s a change in mass.
If fat is lost quickly, your skin can’t keep up and doesn’t have time to change. What you’re left with is the same number of increased skin cells but reduced in size fat cells. The pressure pushing on the skin through fat has been removed, which results in saggy, loose skin.
During pregnancy the skin expands on the outside as a baby grows on the inside. The volume of change a woman’s body goes through in this time is astonishing.
Towards the end of pregnancy, the skin gets stretched significantly and becomes really tight. But this is only for a relatively short period of time. Especially so when compared to someone whose skin has been stretched through being overweight for many years.
After childbirth, a mother’s skin will gradually shrink back, but it may not return to its original tightness. This type of skin elasticity is largely dependent on genetics, which is why some mothers may have no loose skin afterwards, whereas others will. This can also be influenced by multiple pregnancies and the age of the mother.
4. Sun Exposure
Long periods of sun exposure over a lifetime can lead to premature skin ageing and a loss in elasticity. As skin elasticity decreases, loose skin increases.
This premature ageing is caused by ultraviolet light from the sun, which can damage your all-important collagen and elastin fibres. Damage to these important skin proteins can cause a weakening of the overall skin structure, leading to a looseness.
Smoking can cause significant damage to the repair process of the skin.
Studies have shown that toxins inhaled from smoking can down-regulate collagen and elastin production. This in turn impacts the thickness and density of the dermis layer, which eventually leads to loose, sagging skin.
Smoking also impacts blood circulation. Less blood flowing around the body and to outer layers, means less nutrients and oxygen which keep skin cells healthy.
Best Ways To Reduce Loose Skin?
Ok, you know the difference between loose skin vs fat. You’ve also read of the potential causes that lead to loose skin.
The next natural question is, how can you reduce loose skin and tighten everything up again?
Without going into the more extreme measures, there are three more natural ways you can help to tighten loose skin.
You can’t get away from exercise when it comes to benefits for the body. This even applies to your skin too.
To improve loose skin, I’d be doing a combination of cardio and strength training.
If loose skin has been caused by a sudden reduction in fat, it makes sense to increase your muscle mass to ‘fill in’ some of the space, so to speak. Of course, muscle doesn’t grow in the subcutaneous skin layer, but muscle fibres grow in the layer just below the skin.
If you can build up muscle through strength training, you can occupy some of that extra space. This won’t get rid of loose skin, but it will aid with the appearance and help achieve a tighter look.
Some of the best resistance exercises to include in a workout routine include the big compound moves such as squats, deadlifts and bench press. I’d be putting functional exercises in there too, such as walking lunges, pulls-ups, press-ups and dips.
It’ll be important to continue with cardio training too. This can help to burn any residual fat that is still hanging around in the hypodermis causing skin to look flabby.
Interestingly, one study found that endurance exercise might lessen the effect of age-related skin change by improving tissue metabolism. This was all to do with the release of a hormone called interleukin-15 from skeletal muscle.
Exercise can help the body in all sorts of ways we wouldn’t believe!
One of the foundations to good health is nutrition. Your body is fuelled and repaired by the nutrition you take in.
Skin is no different from any other organ or muscle group – it needs proper nutrition to function optimally.
In our case here, we want loose skin to repair and shrink back down to size more in line for your current body shape. The right nutrition won’t do this overnight, but it will play an important role over time.
Foods rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins C and E are like superfoods for your skin. Vitamin C supports your immune system and supports collagen production. Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, fighting against cell damage, including within your dermal layers.
Great sources of these nutrients include fish, nuts, oranges, citrus fruits, vegetables and avocados.
The biggest benefit of these foods for your skin is that they contribute to collagen production. Collagen is a structural protein that helps to bring elasticity, firmness and general health to the skin. It also helps support other tissues and organs.
Supplements are concentrated forms of desired vitamins, minerals, micronutrients or macronutrients. Although not a substitute for good food, they’re super handy nutritional additions that exist in a capsule, tablet, powder or liquid form.
I think of them as extra reinforcements for my body, complementing good dietary, physical and mental habits.
When it comes to loose skin, there’s only one place to start: collagen. In fact, for skin health, collagen is one of the best, science-backed supplements out there.
Scientific studies have shown that collagen can help to repair damaged skin and build up structural integrity. This is because collagen makes up around 70-80% of the skin’s weight and is a vital component of the dermis, which gives your skin elasticity and structural strength.
Almost all loose skin products will be aiming to stimulate the production of collagen either with a topical cream or via a tablet.
Other good supplements and micronutrients that studies have shown to support skin health include copper, zinc, iron and selenium – so a good multivitamin can work wonders here.
What Doesn’t Work On Loose Skin?
Whilst we’re here, it’s worth talking about what doesn’t particularly work.
There’s no magic formula to naturally get rid of loose skin. Despite this, many cosmetics and firming creams will position themselves as the saviour.
I’d just say think twice before you buy these products.
For very minor loose skin they might work, but according to the American Academy of Dermatology, most are just moisturisers that help to hydrate the skin.
Many skin firming products contain ingredients such as retinoid compounds. The way these work is by potentially boosting collagen production. It all comes back to collagen when it comes to firming up the skin.
Other Tips For Losing Fat Without Developing Loose Skin
Maybe you have some extra pounds that you want to shift and you’re researching how you can reduce fat without developing loose skin. A wise move.
Here are my top tips:
- Pace your weight loss – As tempting as it might be to shed the weight quickly once you’re in the right mindset, your skin might struggle to keep up. A good marker to aim for is a weight loss of 1kg or 2lb per week. This will reduce the chance of skin becoming very loose as you lose fat. You could even consider a fat burning supplement to help counteract the negative side of caloric restriction and to aid with the process.
- Stay hydrated – Water is key to life. It’s also key for skin health, helping to keep it hydrated and elastic.
- Nutrient-rich diet – Make sure you’re eating a nutrient-rich diet. A constant supply of greasy junk food is not what your skin ordered. To help reduce the chance of loose skin, stick to a diet rich in protein, healthy fats, vitamin C and E.
- Consider a collagen supplement – Collagen is a central component of healthy skin. As it’s a structural protein, it directly impacts elasticity and shape. You need collagen for healthy skin.
Reducing loose skin naturally or limiting the potential impact of loose skin requires a balanced approach. Just like losing body weight or building muscle, the best approach takes time and patience.
There’s no magic pill as such, but there are different methods and tactics you can apply to help with the process.
Sources and References:
- Exercise-stimulated interleukin-15 is controlled by AMPK and regulates skin metabolism and ageing – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/acel.12341
- The effect of oral collagen peptide supplementation on skin moisture and the dermal collagen network – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jocd.12174
- Skin collagen through the lifestages: importance for skin health and beauty- https://parjournal.net/article/view/3863
- Discovering the link between nutrition and skin ageing – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23467449/
- The role of nutrition in active and healthy ageing – https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC90454
- Ageing of skin connective tissue – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8043384/