Skin Care and Protection for Older Adults

Why is skin care and protection important?

Your skin changes as you age. It becomes thinner and begins to sag, causing wrinkles. It gets injured more easily and heals more slowly. The older you get, the more important it is to take care of your skin. Common complaints as people get older include dry and itchy skin, wrinkles, sagging skin, color changes, and "age spots." Even more worrisome, however, is the possibility that some of those age spots may turn out to be skin cancer.

There are things you can do to help some skin problems, like dryness and itching. Also, if you keep your body healthy with good nutrition and enough exercise and rest, you will look and feel younger. You are never too old to take care of your skin. And you are never too old to protect your skin from damage caused by the sun's ultraviolet rays.

What causes dryness and itching?

Dry skin, which can cause itching, is very common as you get older. Your skin has fewer sweat and oil glands than when you were younger. Frequent baths and showers, especially with harsh soaps, can make your skin even drier. Your skin may be irritated by some cosmetics or fabrics. Medicines may cause dryness or itchiness.

What happens from too much exposure to sunlight?

Skin changes as you get older happen partly because of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun. Your body needs some exposure to sunshine to make vitamin D, but too much exposure can damage your skin.

Fair skin burns more easily than tanned or darker skin, but dark skin will burn, too. The closer you are to the sun (for example, living near the equator or at high altitudes), the more you will be exposed to UVR. Damaged skin can repair itself to some extent if you try to avoid more UVR exposure. It’s worth protecting your skin from too much sun at any age.

The symptoms of sun damage are:

  • freckles, dark "age spots," or moles that suddenly appear, grow, or change color
  • dry, rough skin or wrinkling
  • small blood vessels showing as red lines on the cheeks, nose, and ears

You are most at risk of sun damage to your skin if you:

  • have fair skin that freckles and burns easily
  • live near the equator or at a high altitude
  • spend a lot of time working or playing outdoors
  • sunbathe

Too much UVR exposure can lead to skin cancer. The most common skin cancers are basal and squamous cell cancer. These cancers can usually be removed successfully if caught early. Malignant melanoma is a less common but more dangerous skin cancer. Research suggests that malignant melanoma in adults may be related to sunburn in childhood.

How can I take care of myself?

Whatever the cause of dry skin, there are things you can do about it. You may need to moisturize your skin at least twice a day. Avoid perfumed lotions because the perfume may irritate dry skin.

  • Take fewer showers or baths. Bathing just 2 or 3 times a week is enough. Keep your baths and showers short, and use warm, not hot, water.
  • Use soaps made for dry skin, such as glycerin soap with cleansing cream, and rinse well.
  • Put a skin moisturizer on all of your whole body right after you pat yourself dry with a towel. Using a moisturizer right after a shower helps keep moisture in your skin. Put more moisturizer on dry areas throughout the day.
  • Wear cotton next to your skin. Wool can irritate dry skin and make itching worse.
  • Always shower and use lotion right away after you swim in a chlorinated pool or sit in a hot tub.
  • Avoid saunas.
  • Consider using a humidifier on cold, dry winter days.
  • Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.
  • Try to stay out of the sun between 10 AM and 2 PM. Avoid getting a lot of sun and UV exposure, including tanning salons.
  • When you are out in the sun, keep your skin covered with clothing. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and use a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15 on uncovered skin.
  • Check your skin regularly for new moles or moles that grow or change color. See your healthcare provider if you notice new or unusual changes in your skin.
  • If medicines are causing a dry skin problem, talk to your healthcare provider about alternatives.

Developed by Ann Carter, MD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
© 2012 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.