If you have loose skin after weight loss, first celebrate your weight loss victory! Then, learn more about the factors that affect skin elasticity and what you can do to help your body snap back.
If you’ve lost a lot of weight recently, then you may have noticed that you have a bit of loose skin hanging around. Common areas for extra skin after weight loss include under the arms, under the chin or a pouch around the stomach. But loose skin can appear almost anywhere on the body, especially if you have lost weight rapidly.
Before we go on, let’s start with a brief anatomy overview, from the outside in. First you have your skin, a nice protective layer and the largest organ of the integumentary (external layer or covering) system—think of it as the wrapper that holds your body. Then you have a layer of body fat. Under that is where your muscles live. So when you lose a substantial amount of body fat, along with some muscle (which is common in rapid weight loss), you are literally removing the mass that has previously been stretching your skin. When that mass is gone, you're left with a partially empty wrapper.
What causes loose skin after you lose weight?
Your skin is a very elastic organ that has to stretch as you move and grow. It also has to shrink if you lose fat and muscle. But your skin is not just one big piece of rubber that covers the entire body—it's an organ. Just like all the other organs in your body, it's made of cells.
Though the skin cells on the outer part of your skin (the epidermis) are constantly being sloughed off and replaced with new cells, the skin cells under the epidermis are a bit more permanent.
Different layers of your skin have different types of cells. Though the skin cells on the outer part of your skin (the epidermis) are constantly being sloughed off and replaced with new cells, the skin cells under the epidermis are a bit more permanent. These layers of the skin, called the dermis and sub-dermis, are made up of elastic connective tissues, fibers, blood vessels and all sorts of components that can stretch or contract depending on how they’re treated.
When you lose weight, and especially when you lose weight very quickly, these elastic components of your skin not only lose the layers of fat that keep them stretched out over your body, but they also don’t have much time for their elasticity to adapt to your new body shape.
Is it loose skin or just stubborn fat?
In general, immediately after weight loss, the majority of loose skin is actually just excess subcutaneous body fat covered by skin. So even if you have hit your “goal weight,” you may actually still have some of this body fat hanging around.
Subcutaneous fat is referred to as "soft fat," which can be easily confused with plain old skin. This type of fat can be very stubborn, which means it can take a long time to disappear after you've lost weight. And before you ask, yes, "stubborn fat" is a real thing!
Our adipose tissue (or body fat) is full of alpha-2 and beta-2 receptors. A-2 and b-2 receptors interact with the catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) to cause stored body fat to be set free. Without getting too biological, B-2 receptors are associated with “easy fat” that we can lose, well, easily. A-2 receptors are associated with “stubborn fat,” which can be harder to lose. In particular, the fat around our belly has a notoriously low b-2:a-2 ratio, which is one reason why the “spare tire” is often the last part of the body to lean up.
If the area of loose skin that you are focused on is more than a few millimeters thick, that's a good sign that it is actually residual body fat.
So here's a test, if the area of loose skin that you are focused on is more than a few millimeters thick, that's a good sign that it is actually residual body fat. This means that if you keep up your new lifestyle of being someone who weighs less, your skin will continue to shrink and tighten. Eventually, the appearance of loose skin will disappear.
But if the skin you pinch is quite thin (more like the back of your hand), or you've already been dealing with loose skin for quite some time with little or no change, this may not be the case. You are likely dealing with loose skin, not stubborn fat.
Can you prevent loose skin after weight loss?
Before we get into some steps you can take to help your body deal with loose skin more efficiently, let’s talk about how you can avoid this issue in the first place.
Crash diets and excessive amounts of time spent exercising can rapidly shed both muscle and fat, resulting in a double-whammy on your skin. Meaning that the supportive underlying muscular structure that holds skin against your body is lost along with the fat that keeps the skin stretched tight.
Any weight loss beyond 2-3 pounds per month is likely to be lean muscle, not fat.
Most weight loss programs, even the ones that claim to be slow, aim for 1-2 pounds of fat loss per week. But most people can only lose 2-3 pounds of body fat per month. Any weight loss beyond that 2-3 pounds per month is likely to be lean muscle, not fat.
In a 2008 study, researchers found that small, cumulative changes in diet and activity (which are quite similar to the approach Nutrition Diva Monica Reinagel and I use in the Weighless program) produced slow but sustainable weight loss. That type of slow, steady weight loss also avoided pitfalls like loose skin.
In conjunction with losing weight slowly, make sure your weight loss program includes some type of resistance training (or even, dare I say, weight lifting) so that you do not lose lean muscle. I have many articles in the Get-Fit Guy archives if you need some guidance on where to start with resistance training.
Is loose skin something to worry about?
I think this is an important question—is loose skin really worth worrying about?
If your loose skin is causing pain or discomfort, and especially if you are getting chafing during activity, you may want to do something about it, like wearing compression garments. Exercisers that carry larger amounts of weight are often more susceptible to repetitive-use injuries like strains, shin splints, sprains, and other joint issues. But simply wearing some compression gear can help compress loose skin against the skeleton and minimize the tiny tissue tears that can be caused by skin vibration and oscillation.
Don’t let the stigma of loose skin stop you from living your best life.
But if your loose skin isn’t causing pain or injury, please don’t let the stigma of loose skin stop you from living your best life. I'm a fan of the attitude expressed in an article from SELF magazine called "17 Women Share Pics of Loose Skin After Weight Loss to Prove How Common and Normal It Is."
As one woman quoted in the article said, "Don't you dare hold your potential hostage because you're worried what someone might say or think."
When I started researching this topic, I was faced with about 562 million search results for "loose skin." That plain fact tells me the issue is more common than we think! Sure, if significant weight loss is or was your goal, you might end up with loose skin. But I believe that focusing on your loose skin instead of celebrating all the good you've done for your health would be a shame.
That said, even if you are ready to be as bold as the people in that SELF article, there are still some steps you can take to give your skin a little help.
4 ways to address loose skin after weight loss
First off, don’t panic! As I said, because your skin is a living organ, it will slowly return to a shape that fits your new body. But since that process can take a few years, here are steps you can take to help it along.
1. Stay hydrated
Attend to your hydration needs. Water is a crucial component of maintaining skin elasticity. Don’t forget that hydration comes from both food and drink.
Your skin is made up of cells. Skin cells, like all cells in your body, are made up of water. Without water, this enormous organ will certainly not function at its best. If your skin is not getting a sufficient amount of water, your skin will have less resilience and less elasticity.
A great resource for learning more about proper hydration is this article from Nutrition Diva: How Much Water Should I Drink?
2. Eat properly
Two necessary ingredients that keep skin plump and elastic are collagen and elastin. Make sure you eat protein-rich foods. Cottage cheese, milk, legumes, tofu, beans, seeds, nuts, and fish all contain collagen and elastin forming components as well as oils to help maintain healthy skin.
It can be challenging to increase your protein intake without taking in more calories than you need and potentially undoing some of the weight loss you have experienced. Understanding the concept of protein density can help.
3. Take care of your skin
Nourish and care for your skin. Daily exfoliation can help to remove dead skin cells and increase skin circulation. A hot bath with salts and minerals can improve skin tone. Skin tightening creams with herbal formulas and ingredients such as aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, yeast extract, soy protein, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin A can help to hydrate and increase collagen and elastin formation in the skin.
For more information about skincare after weight loss, read the Nutrition Diva's post on how vitamin E can help with stretch marks.
A few more things you can do to care for your skin include:
- Staying away from harsh detergents (like soaps, shampoos, and dishwashing liquids with sulfates)
- Limiting your sun exposure and staying away from tanning beds
- Not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
- Minimizing your contact with hot and chlorinated water
If you swim for fitness or fun, use soap and shampoos that are specially designed to remove chlorine. And be sure to moisturize as soon as you get out of the shower.
4. Increase your body’s muscle mass
As we covered, skin becomes loose after weight loss because the fat that was supporting the skin has literally been removed. With that mass gone, you are left with an empty wrapper. So, why not fill that wrapper back up with some muscle mass?
Engaging in some hypertrophic (muscle building) activities, especially in the areas around the loose skin, can give the appearance of tighter skin. Sure, you aren’t actually shrinking the skin, but you are giving it the appearance of tightness by filling that empty space with muscle, a healthier and more metabolically active (it burns calories) tissue.
It can take at least four weeks of concerted muscle gain effort for you to start seeing and changes, so be patient and go slow.
Can loose skin go away on its own?
The truth is, skin can only be stretched so far before it loses some of its ability to snap back, especially as we age. Genes also influence how much collagen our skin retains as we get older. So does the amount of weight you've lost and how long the weight was carried before you lost it.
The truth is, skin can only be stretched so far before it loses some of its ability to snap back, especially as we age.
If you’ve had a 9-month pregnancy, then you’ll likely be able to tighten your loose skin. But if you’ve carried a hundred or more extra pounds around for many years, and you are experiencing the pain or discomfort we addressed earlier, you may be a candidate for plastic surgery to tighten and lift that loose skin. Time, nutrition, hydration, skincare, and building muscle may not ever be enough.
A surgical fix should only be used in extreme cases. And a word of warning: I've heard from trainer friends that folks who have undergone this operation have gained more fat back while rehabilitating from surgery. Make sure you work closely with a specialist before and after a surgery such as this to avoid this potential pitfall.
As mentioned earlier, the elasticity of your skin will naturally decrease with age. Though you can address some of the issues in this article, such as not losing weight too quickly, staying properly hydrated, eating the right foods, and caring for your skin, you can’t slow time.
But instead of letting age stress you out, focus on the things you have control over like staying active, sleeping well, keeping your stress levels low, and eating right. Because if you can do that, you’ll find that you always look good and feel great.