If you have loose skin after losing weight, first celebrate the fact that you lost weight!! Second, keep reading to find out what affects the skin elasticity and what you can do to help your body snapback.
Before I go on, let me give you a brief anatomy lesson. First, you have your skin, a protective layer, and the largest organ (think of it as the wrapper that holds your body). Then you have a layer of body fat, and under your fat, you have muscles.
So when you lose a lot of body fat, along with some muscle (which is common in rapid weight loss), you are removing the mass that has previously been stretching your skin. When that mass is gone, you’re left with a partially empty wrapper.
Why do you have loose skin after losing 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.
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 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 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, 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 go.
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.
How can you prevent loose skin after weight loss?
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.
Slow but sustainable weight loss helps decrease loose skin. Any weight loss beyond that 2-4 pounds per month is likely to be lean muscle, not fat.
In conjunction with losing weight slowly, make sure your weight loss program includes some type of resistance training/weight lifting so that you do not lose lean muscle. I offer personal training and group personal training if you need some guidance on where to start with weight training.
Should I worry about loose skin?
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.
Loose skin is much more common than we think! Sure, if significant weight loss is your goal, you might end up with loose skin. But focusing only on your loose skin instead of celebrating all the good you’ve done for your health would be a shame.
Three 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
Water is a crucial component of maintaining skin elasticity.
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.
Aim to drink a minimum of half of your body weight in ounces of water a day. So if you weigh 150 lbs, aim to drink 75 oz of water.
2. Get your diet in check
Two necessary ingredients that keep skin plump and elastic are collagen and elastin. Make sure you eat protein-rich foods. Chicken, lean beef and turkey, cottage cheese, greek yogurt, fish, eggs, legumes, tofu, beans, fish all contain collagen and elastin forming components as well as healthy fats (nuts, seeds, oils, avocado).
3. Lift weights
Skin becomes loose after weight loss because the fat that was supporting the skin is gone. 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 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.
It can take at least four to eight weeks of persistent effort for you to start seeing any 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, the amount of weight you’ve lost, and how long you’ve been carrying that weight around affects the ability of your skin to snap back.
If you’ve recently had a baby, then you shouldn’t a problem tightening your loose skin. But if you’ve carried a a lot of weight around for years, and you are experiencing the pain or discomfort we addressed earlier, you may be a candidate for plastic surgery to tighten 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 know many clients who have undergone this operation and gained more fat back while rehabilitating from surgery. So make sure you get your diet is in check before and after surgery to avoid this potential pitfall.
The elasticity of your skin will naturally decrease with age. Though you can address some of the issues, such as not losing weight too quickly, staying hydrated, lifting weights, and eating the right foods, you can’t slow time.
Instead of letting age stress you out, focus on the things you have control over like staying active, getting more sleep, 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.