How to Tell the Difference Between Fine Lines and Wrinkles

A dermatologist weighs in on whether these common signs of aging are treated differently.

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Every single anti-aging product for the face and body claims it'll help delay fine lines and wrinkles. Not just wrinkles. Not just fine lines. Fine lines and wrinkles. It's a package deal. But that conjunction made me start wondering about the actual difference between the two signs of aging. Would you even be able to call out which one showed up on the corners of your eyes?

If you answered no, you’re not alone. Many people wouldn’t be able to either. That’s where the experts come in. To answer any questions about fine lines, wrinkles, and treatments for both, we turned to the dermatologists for their input. See what they had to say below. 

What are fine lines?

Let's start with fine lines, which New York City board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says are caused by a weakness in the skin's foundation. "Fine lines start to develop when the skin becomes folded and it is not able to bounce back to its original shape," Dr. Zeichner explains.

Board-certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology Shereene Idriss, MD, adds that the collagen and elastin found in our dermis will loosen over time and depression starts to form, which leads to fine lines. 

They're also little skin creases that commonly form directly on the area of facial movement, or adjacent to it, but they can appear on any area of the face. Dr. Idriss calls this extrinsic aging, where the small contractions from smiling, frowning, or even squinting can cause fine lines to form. 

Lastly, they can form from environmental factors such as sun damage and pollution. She explains that this can break down the collagen in our bodies. 

What are wrinkles?

A wrinkle isn't all that different, it’s pretty much just a deeper form of a fine line. "The main difference between fine lines and wrinkles is the depth of the crease in the skin. Fine lines are very mild, while wrinkles are deeper set," Dr. Zeichner explains. "Some refer to wrinkles as expression lines and feel they apply only to skin folds that appear in areas facial expression."

“Wrinkles form the same way that fine lines form,” adds Jeannette Graf, MD, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Wrinkles happen organically over time due to repetitive facial movements that as we age, will cause our skin not to bounce back to the shape it used to when we were younger.”

Is the treatment different for fine lines vs. wrinkles?

As there’s not much of a difference between fine lines and wrinkles, it makes sense then that both are treated the same way. You’ll want to prevent damage and strengthen the skin. The first step is limiting UVA/UVB exposure by regularly applying (and re-applying) SPF. 

Next, you’ll want to consider topical products with ingredients that stimulate collagen. Dr. Zeichner recommends products with retinol, which not only stimulate collagen but also increase cell turnover. New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, recommends anti-aging ingredients such as peptides and growth factors, alpha hydroxy acids, and niacinamide. 

As for asthetic treatments, there are many you can do. Dr. King recommends neuromodulators like Botox to soften lines and dermal fillers, which can be injected deeper to help wrinkles. Dr. Zeichner recommends something like Dysport that relax muscles that contract during facial expressions can also work as preventatives. If you don’t want a needle going anywhere near your face, Dr. King says you can opt for chemical peels and laser resurfacing can also be helpful, as can tightening devices that utilize radiofrequency or ultrasound.

At the end of the day, if you're wearing sunscreen and taking care of your skin with products meant for your skin type, you won't really need to worry about the difference quite as much.

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