Healthy skin for every season

Created date

June 27th, 2019
An older white person shows off their shoulders, with a brown mole in the center of the back.

Skin cancer is more likely to appear on the left side of your face, which is exposed to sunlight during driving. Source: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology

Your skin is your largest organ and protects you from numerous hazards. But as you age, you need to return the favor and protect it.

Older skin is more likely to be dry because the oil and sweat glands don’t function as well as they used to. Health conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease can make your skin dry and fragile, as can lifestyle factors such as spending too much time in the sun, smoking, living in a dry environment, and using harsh soap. Some studies suggest that mental stress is associated with drier skin.  

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

According to the Food and Drug Administration, amiodarone (a heart medicine) and certain nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can cause skin to be dry or develop a rash if you are out in the sun. 

Rashes can also develop from simple problems. “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 older patients have.”

Avoiding and treating dry skin

“You may not need to bathe daily,” Halverstam says. “Reducing the number of baths or showers you take can help you avoid dry skin. Use mild soaps and warm—not hot—water.” 

“Use cleansers with either no detergent or very low detergent levels,” Crutchfield says. “That helps preserve the natural oils in your skin. Your skin naturally exfoliates itself, so you don’t need exfoliants, just use a cotton washcloth.”  

Dry your skin thoroughly and carefully. “Use a cotton towel and pat gently,” Crutchfield recommends.

After cleansing, moisturize. “Moisturizing after bathing contributes more to overall skin health than just about anything else, if you do it on a regular basis,” Crutchfield says. 

Protecting skin from cancer-causing rays 

Your skin is bombarded by harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays all year. These rays damage the body’s cells and lead to skin cancer, premature skin aging, cataracts, and according to some studies, a suppressed immune system. 

The intensity of UV rays can vary depending on the weather, season, altitude, latitude, and reflecting factors such as sand, snow, water, or pavement. Even at lower levels, however, UV rays are still harmful. That’s why you should apply sunscreen on all exposed body parts every day if you are going to be outside—even if it is cold and cloudy. If you wear sunscreen only for half of the year, that leaves six months that your skin—especially on vulnerable places such as your face—is completely exposed to UV rays.

Check sunscreen labels for certain specifications. “Your sunscreen label should have ‘broad spectrum’ and an SPF of at least 30 on the label,” says Ramzi W. Saad, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at South Shore Skin Center in Plymouth, Mass. “This means it will screen out harmful UV rays and be somewhat more effective for a longer time than a lower SPF product.”

Inspecting for skin cancer

Skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in this country, happens because of the cumulative effects of the UV rays over time. “Every month, inspect your skin at home—use a mirror if necessary and don’t forget to look at your back, your feet, and the backs of your legs,” Saad says. “Even if you think you have a new freckle or age spot, call your doctor.”

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two most common types of skin cancer. They can occur anywhere on the body, but most often appear on areas regularly exposed to sunlight, such as the face, scalp, and arms. They grow slowly and rarely spread. Melanoma, the third type, accounts for less than 5% of skin cancers, but it can spread to other organs of the body and be fatal. 

Having regular screening exams every year is essential to catch skin problems, especially cancer. “Your doctor will look for any changes in your skin, including your scalp and other areas that are typically exposed to sunlight,” Saad says. “Some people at higher risk of skin cancer may need an inspection more often.”  


ABCDEs of skin cancer

Check your skin all over 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, meaning 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. 

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