Cutaneous ageing is the result of two distinct, biological processes which may occur concurrently: (i) the passage of time, termed intrinsic ageing and (ii) environmental influences, termed extrinsic ageing. Intrinsic ageing of the skin is a slow process which causes changes in tissue structure and impairs function in the absence of additional biological, chemical and physical factors. The clinical features of intrinsically aged skin are not usually evident until old age when, although smooth and unblemished, the skin surface appears pale and is characterized by fine wrinkles with occasional exaggerated expression lines. Functionally, intrinsically aged skin is dry and less elastic than more youthful skin. In contrast, extrinsically aged skin is exemplified by deep, coarse wrinkles, mottled hyperpigmentation and a marked loss of elasticity and recoil. The two major environmental influences which induce extrinsic ageing are: (i) chronic exposure to solar ultraviolet (UV) irradiation (termed photoageing) and (ii) smoking. This review discusses the changes associated with the ageing process in the skin, with particular emphasis on the role played by the elastic fibre network in maintaining dermal function. The review concludes with a discussion of a short-term assay for independent assessment of the efficacy of anti-ageing cosmetic products using the elastic fibre component fibrillin-1 as a biomarker of extracellular matrix repair. © 2010 Society of Cosmetic Scientists and the Société Française de Cosmétologie.