Common age-related skin problems

As you get older, your skin needs even more tender loving care. After all, it is your largest organ.

Created date

May 10th, 2018
Did you know? Your skin sheds about 30,000 to 40,000 dead skin cells daily. That’s about 9 pounds yearly.

Did you know? Your skin sheds about 30,000 to 40,000 dead skin cells daily. That’s about 9 pounds yearly.

Your skin is your largest organ and a great protector throughout your life. But as you age, dry skin may be harder to treat at home and new growths may develop. Maybe you’ve never been to a dermatologist in your life, but now is the time to see one. 

Persistent dry skin

Also called xerosis, older skin is especially prone to dryness because of the gradual loss of functioning oil and sweat glands. Having health conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease or certain lifestyle factors such as spending too much time in the sun, smoking, living in a dry environment, and too much (or a harsh) soap to bathe can make it worse. Some studies suggest that mental stress might also play a role.

“Dry skin can progress to the point that an itchy rash develops,” says Charles E. Crutchfield III, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at University of Minnesota Medical School and Medical Director of Crutchfield Dermatology in St. Paul, Minn. “This is called xerotic eczema, and it is one of the more common conditions that my older patients have.”

There are other types of eczema (dermatitis) that tend to affect seniors. These include contact dermatitis, in which your skin reacts to an external irritant—such as soaps, latex, cosmetics, or even certain foods. Stasis dermatitis occurs when you have poor circulation, especially in the lower legs.

Some medicines have side effects that affect skin. “Some medicines can cause itching. See your doctor if you think you are having side effects.” says Caroline Halverstam, M.D., director of dermatology at Montefiore Health System, Wakefield Division in Bronx, N.Y.

In addition, according to the Food and Drug Administration, a heart medicine called amiodarone and certain nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can cause skin to be dry or develop a rash when you are exposed to sunlight.

Treating dry skin

“Reduce the number of baths or showers you take. Some older people do not necessarily need to take a bath every day,” Halverstam says. “Use mild soaps and warm—not hot—water.”

“Cleansers with either no detergent or a very low detergent value help preserve the natural oils in your skin,” Crutchfield says. “You don’t need harsh cleansers or exfoliants; just use a cotton washcloth. Your skin will naturally exfoliate itself.”

“Examples of good over-the-counter cleansers include Vanicream Cleansing Bar, Cetaphil, and Dove unscented soaps,” Crutchfield says. “Everyone’s skin chemistry is different, so experiment until you find a product that works best for your skin type.”

After cleansing, moisturize. “Use moisturizers twice daily because they help prevent water from evaporating off your skin,” Halverstam says. “It’s best to apply a mild cream or lotion immediately after bathing or showering.”

“Moisturizing after bathing contributes more to overall skin care and skin fitness than just about anything else, if done on a regular basis,” Crutchfield adds.

How you dry off can also make a difference, because rubbing can damage fragile skin.  “Use a cotton towel and pat gently,” Crutchfield recommends.

Instead of taking the time and effort to apply cream or lotion, it may seem easier to add some oil to bath water or use oils designed for after-shower use. The National Institute of Aging advises against this practice, however, because it can increase the risk of a fall. Oil makes your tub slippery, and any residue left on the bottoms of your feet could cause you to lose your balance.

If you have severely dry skin or an itchy rash, do not scratch. Fragile skin tends to bleed easier, and scratching can lead to breaks or cuts that are susceptible to infection. Persistent or severe dry skin or eczema may need to be treated with prescription topical corticosteroids.

Skin growths

There are numerous types of growths, but the biggest concern is skin cancer. Because growths can appear as discolorations or raised lesions, it can be difficult to determine if something is cancerous.

There are three types of skin cancers. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common. They can occur anywhere on the body, but most often appear on areas typically exposed to sunlight. They grow slowly and rarely spread. Melanoma, the third type, is less common, but very dangerous because it can spread to other organs of the body and be fatal. “See a dermatologist if any new growth appears,” Crutchfield says.

While you can’t do anything about sun damage that occurred earlier in your life, you still need to wear sunscreen for continued protection. “Your skin is more vulnerable to sun damage as you age,” Halverstam says. “Along with sunscreen, use hats, umbrellas, and wear light, loose clothing for further protection.”

ABCDEs of skin cancer

Check your skin all over at least monthly for any growth or discoloration that has any of the following characteristics:

A= Asymmetry (one part of the growth looks different from another part)

B= Borders that are irregular

C= Color changes or more than one color

D= Diameter greater than the size of a pencil eraser

E= Evolving; this means the growth changes in size, shape, symptoms (itching, tenderness, bleeding), or color or shades of color 

If you notice any of the above, call your doctor.