Pathophysiology of premature skin aging induced by ultraviolet light

N Engl J Med. 1997 Nov 13;337(20):1419-28. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199711133372003.


Background: Long-term exposure to ultraviolet irradiation from sunlight causes premature skin aging (photoaging), characterized in part by wrinkles, altered pigmentation, and loss of skin tone. Photoaged skin displays prominent alterations in the collagenous extracellular matrix of connective tissue. We investigated the role of matrix-degrading metalloproteinases, a family of proteolytic enzymes, as mediators of collagen damage in photoaging.

Methods: We studied 59 whites (33 men and 26 women, ranging in age from 21 to 58 years) with light-to-moderate skin pigmentation, none of whom had current or prior skin disease. Only some of the participants were included in each of the studies. We irradiated their buttock skin with fluorescent ultraviolet lights under standard conditions and obtained skin samples from irradiated and nonirradiated areas by keratome or punch biopsy. In some studies, tretinoin and its vehicle were applied to skin under occlusion 48 hours before ultraviolet irradiation. The expression of matrix metalloproteinases was determined by in situ hybridization, immunohistology, and in situ zymography. Irradiation-induced degradation of skin collagen was measured by radioimmunoassay of soluble cross-linked telopeptides. The protein level of tissue inhibitor of matrix metalloproteinases type 1 was determined by Western blot analysis.

Results: A single exposure to ultraviolet irradiation increased the expression of three matrix metalloproteinases -- collagenase, a 92-kd gelatinase, and stromelysin -- in skin connective tissue and outer skin layers, as compared with nonirradiated skin. The degradation of endogenous type I collagen fibrils was increased by 58 percent in irradiated skin, as compared with nonirradiated skin. Collagenase and gelatinase activity remained maximally elevated (4.4 and 2.3 times, respectively) for seven days with four exposures to ultraviolet irradiation, delivered at two-day intervals, as compared with base-line levels. Pretreatment of skin with tretinoin (all-trans-retinoic acid) inhibited the induction of matrix metalloproteinase proteins and activity (by 70 to 80 percent) in both connective tissue and outer layers of irradiated skin. Ultraviolet irradiation also induced tissue inhibitor of matrix metalloproteinases-1, which regulates the enzyme. Induction of the inhibitor was not affected by tretinoin.

Conclusions: Multiple exposures to ultraviolet irradiation lead to sustained elevations of matrix metalloproteinases that degrade skin collagen and may contribute to photoaging. Treatment with topical tretinoin inhibits irradiation-induced matrix metalloproteinases but not their endogenous inhibitor.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Adult
  • Collagen / radiation effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Metalloendopeptidases / analysis
  • Metalloendopeptidases / drug effects
  • Metalloendopeptidases / metabolism
  • Metalloendopeptidases / radiation effects*
  • Middle Aged
  • Skin / enzymology
  • Skin / physiopathology
  • Skin / radiation effects
  • Skin Aging / pathology*
  • Skin Aging / physiology
  • Tretinoin / pharmacology
  • Ultraviolet Rays / adverse effects*


  • Tretinoin
  • Collagen
  • Metalloendopeptidases