We tend to treat weight loss, particularly major weight loss, as the triumphant endpoint of a difficult journey. We divide weight-loss journeys into “Before” and “After,” often with a single photo representing the start and finish of that journey. However, this story only captures one aspect of what it’s like to lose weight. What often gets left out of weight-loss stories is that when you move from a higher body weight to a significantly lower one, you may experience other unwanted physical changes, such as loose skin. There is absolutely nothing wrong with embracing loose skin—as individuals like Kenzie Brenna, an actress, writer, and body-positivity activist, have publicly done—in fact, it’s an admirable goal and an indication of deep self-acceptance. That said, there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to learn how to avoid loose skin after weight loss.
For some people, loose skin can be damaging to their mental health and self-esteem. It can also be physically uncomfortable, particularly during physical exercise. Once you develop loose skin, it can be quite challenging to reverse without plastic surgery.
Less invasive options do exist, however, many of which are most effective when put in place preemptively. Before sharing eight ways you can avoid loose skin after weight loss, we’ll first cover some basic facts about the skin as well as risk factors that impact how likely you are to develop loose skin.
How Does Skin Function?
One of the pitfalls of the rapid loss of a lot of weight is the development of excess skin. A New York Times article covering a pioneering study that followed contestants from season eight of the popular TV show “The Biggest Loser” for 6 years after the series finale addressed this issue. Per the article, prior to the finale weigh-in during the show’s finale to determine the winner, contestants “dressed carefully to hide the rolls of loose skin that remained, to their surprise and horror, after they had lost weight. They wore compression undergarments to hold it in.”
In order to understand why rapid, significant weight loss so often results in loose skin, you must have a basic grasp of how skin functions.
The skin—which is the largest human organ—acts as a barrier to keep your body safe from viruses, fungi, bacteria, and other potentially harmful contaminants. Collagen and elastin, two proteins found in the second layer of the skin, (the dermis), allow it to stretch and contract as we move and grow.
As an individual gains weight, those proteins must continually stretch to allow the skin to adapt to that change. This can cause the fibers of those proteins to become weak and damaged. Thus, when significant weight-loss occurs, the elastin and collagen in the skin may not be readily able to contract.
“Skin stretches to form the shape of your body since it’s an ‘elastic’ organ,” Certified Exercise Physiologist Lizbeth Simancas summarized. “Your skin may not contract back to its smaller shape if weight is lost too quickly.” This can be seen most clearly for individuals who undergo bariatric surgery, but those who quickly lose a lot of weight through intense diet and exercise practices, like competitors on “Biggest Loser,” can experience this too.
The more weight is lost, the greater the demand on the skin’s previously overtaxed capacity for elasticity. And, therefore, the greater the likelihood of saggy skin post-weight loss.
What Factors Contribute to the Development of Loose Skin After Weight Loss?
Dr. Christine Choi Kim, medical and cosmetic dermatologist, underlines that fact that the skin is a living organ, and while it responds to weight gain by stretching and expanding, its ability to contract in response to weight loss is inherently more limited. Dr. Kim notes, too, that this ability to tighten depends on a number of factors, such as:
- Age: The aging process often causes the skin to become less elastic, impairing its ability to tighten after weight loss.
- Genetics: Some individuals are more prone to sagging skin as they grow older, regardless of weight loss.
- Baseline strength of elastin and collagen proteins: As is the case when it comes to your genes and your age, you can’t control the impact your baseline skin elasticity will have on its ability to bounce back after you lose weight.
- Degree of weight gain and loss: As touched on previously, the more weight you lose, and the shorter the period of time in which you lose it, the harder it will be for your skin to adapt.
- Nutrient intake: To keep your skin healthy, you’ll need to provide it with a balanced intake of nutrients, particularly vitamins C and E and the substances that act as precursors for the development of collagen and elastin.
- Sun exposure: While some degree of sun exposure is a healthy way to meet your body’s vitamin D needs, excess exposure can lead to skin damage.
- Smoking history: Yet another reason to kick the habit, or avoid cigarettes in the first place. A plethora of studies show that smoking speeds the normal aging process of your skin.
Understanding the factors that influence skin elasticity can help you avoid loose skin after weight loss. If possible, it’s best to address this issue preventatively as it’s far more difficult to tighten skin that has already begun to sag than it is to forestall the sagging.
According to Kim, “Excess skin can lead to embarrassment and a lack of satisfaction with your body image—even after significant weight loss.” Equip yourself with the knowledge you need to keep the triumph of achieving a major weight-loss goal from being marred by unexpected changes to your skin.
How to Avoid Loose Skin After Weight Loss
First, it’s important to be clear that there is no guaranteed way to avoid loose skin after weight loss. Depending on the amount of weight you lose, when you gained the weight and how long you carried it, as well as your skin’s baseline elasticity, some extra skin may be unavoidable. However, the experts say that the following 6 practices can help you avoid loose skin after weight loss, or minimize the appearance of existing excess skin.
1. Lose Weight Gradually
Perhaps the single most effective way to avoid loose skin after weight loss is to progress gradually toward your weight-loss goal. Slower weight loss makes it less arduous for skin to snap back into place.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends aiming to lose between 1 and 2 pounds per week. Not only will this make it easier for your skin to keep pace, but it also makes it less likely that you’ll regain the weight.
Furthermore, a study published in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism found that losing weight slowly results in more favorable changes to body composition. Study participants were randomly divided into two groups—a rapid weight-loss group that followed a diet plan designed to produce a 1,000 to 1,500-calorie daily calorie deficit and a slow weight-loss group whose diet produced an energy deficit of 500 to 750 calories daily.
While both protocols led to reductions in waist circumference, hip circumference, body fat mass, and more, individuals in the slow weight-loss group experienced more significant reductions to waist circumference, hip circumference, fat mass, and percentage of body fat, all of which are linked to improved health.
2. Engage in Regular Cardio and Strength Training Exercise
Adding exercise to your gradual weight-loss plan also increases the odds that your skin will be able to tighten up as your weight decreases.
Both strength training and cardio make important contributions. Cardio, or aerobic exercise, can be a highly effective way to burn calories, which will help you move toward your weight-loss goal. However, if you exclusively engage in cardio training, you may lose lean muscle mass also with fat, which can increase the appearance of saggy skin as well as adversely impact your metabolism.
Strength training, however, can help you build muscle, which in turn raises your metabolic rate. One of the factors that determines your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which accounts for the vast majority of the calories you burn each day, is the amount of lean muscle you have. Muscle tissue has higher energy (calorie) demands than fat while at rest, meaning that even when you’re not working out, having more muscles translates to a greater caloric expenditure. No matter what you weigh, the more muscle and the less fat you have, the higher your BMR.
“If you have more muscle, it burns fuel more rapidly,” stated Columbia University professor Michael Rosenbaum, who specializes in weight loss and metabolism. Rosenbaum cautions, though, that if you do succeed in speeding up your metabolism, “you have to fight the natural tendency to [want to] eat more as a result of your higher metabolism.”
Still, when taking the long view of your overall health, there are clearly more benefits to physical activity than drawbacks, including the fact that weight lifting and resistance training can minimize the appearance of existing loose skin by building muscles that will fill it out. If your goal is to look lean and toned rather than built and bulky, don’t worry, you won’t accidentally develop the physique of a bodybuilder—that requires a high level of intention and commitment.
3. Optimize Your Diet
In order to lose weight and ensure you don’t subsequently gain weight, it’s important to build a diet based on whole, minimally processed foods.
A 2017 clinical trial called the DIETFITS study (the acronym stands for “Diet intervention examining the factors interacting with treatment success) set out to identify factors that predispose individuals to experience greater success when following certain weight-loss diets so that experts can more effectively match patients with dietary interventions.
Interestingly, participants in both the low-fat and low-carbohydrate groups lost comparable amounts of weight. This drew attention among health practitioners reviewing the results to the elements that remained consistent between the two diets.
Both groups were encouraged to:
- Focus on unprocessed, high-quality foods
- Eat as many vegetables as possible
- Prepare meals at home
- Restrict or eliminate trans fats, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates, including flour
Participants also had regular sessions with dietitians and access to counseling to help them break emotional eating patterns.
The findings are quite encouraging. You don’t need to follow a complicated or overly restrictive diet in order to lose weight. Instead, you can use the principles described above, which leave plenty of room for shaping a diet that accounts for your personal preferences and lifestyle.
4. Stop Smoking
Research unequivocally shows that skin damage is among the many adverse effects of cigarette smoking. In fact, even secondhand smoke exposure has been shown to decrease collagen levels, increase inflammation, and fuel oxidative damage.
A study published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications found that when rats were exposed to cigarette smoke, collagen levels in their skin decreased significantly compared to control rats. The authors concluded that long-term secondhand smoke exposure would likely “affect the appearance of the skin [and] accelerate the skin aging process.”
If you’re serious about maximizing the elasticity of your skin, which you will need to do in order to prevent it from becoming loose or saggy, the decision is clear: stop smoking.
5. Try Firming Creams
If you have room in your budget and are looking for a way to immediately tighten loose skin, you may want to try firming creams.
The results of these products tend to be rather subtle, and most impactful when skin is also in need of hydration. These products often use retinoids or collagen as their active ingredient.
One of the ways retinoids work is by preventing free radical damage that negatively impacts skin tone. They can also speed up collagen production, which can boost the elasticity of the skin.
As you know, collagen is one of the key proteins that keeps your skin tight and firm. There’s some evidence that the topical application of collagen can temporarily improve the appearance of the skin, but collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed through the skin so the results will not be lasting.
A popular natural treatment, grapeseed oil, does have some scientific backing. A study published in Pharmacognosy Magazine looked at a number of herbal ingredients touted for their ability to increase skin’s elasticity and found that grapeseed did produce measurable changes to moisture levels, softness, and tightness.
6. Supplement Strategically
As wonderful as it would be if scientists could formulate a magic pill, or combination of supplements, that completely prevents or treats loose skin, that’s yet to be announced. In the meantime, an optimal supply of the following nutrients will ensure your skin has all the raw materials it needs to be maximally healthy.
While you might assume that collagen supplements would be on this list, it tends to be more effective to consume supplements that increase collagen production, such as vitamin C and certain amino acids.
Scientists have confirmed that vitamin C has impressive abilities when it comes to stimulating collagen production.
A 2018 systematic review examined the efficacy of vitamin C supplementation as a means of promoting collagen synthesis, and found that not only did vitamin C increase collagen synthesis, but it also reduced oxidative stress. The authors also found no evidence of adverse side effects.
Furthermore, an article published in Nutrients in 2017 specifically touched on the impact of dietary vitamin C intake on skin sagging related to weight loss. According to the article, a higher intake of vitamin C can be linked to improved skin tightness.
Collagen, one of the most abundant proteins not only in the skin, but also throughout the entire human body, contains between 2 and 10 amino acids. Glycine might be the most impactful of those. This simple, naturally occurring amino acid elevates collagen production, facilitates skin regeneration, and increases moisture retention.
Though your body produces its own glycine from other amino acids, it can be beneficial to increase your glycine intake, either by eating glycine-rich foods like red meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and legumes or by taking a high-quality amino acid supplement.
This essential amino acid plays a vital role in the function of your skin, ensuring that its supportive structures remain strong and intact. Our bodies also need lysine for collagen development, tissue repair, and other important physiological processes.
Good food sources of lysine include:
- Fish (especially cod and sardines)
- Cheese (especially Parmesan)
- Soy products
Losing a significant amount of weight, particularly if you do so after weight-loss surgery, or using another method to lose a lot of weight in a short period of time, often causes loose skin to develop. Embracing this physical change is a viable and commendable option, but it’s equally valid to seek out ways to avoid loose skin after weight loss or to encourage skin to tighten.
There’s no one single skin tightening technique that can fully restore skin elasticity for each and every person, however, scientific findings indicate that using one or more of the methods described above will likely prevent or reduce the appearance of loose skin.