There are lots of things to love about growing older. Dry skin isn't one of them.
By age 60, almost every adult finds their skin is more arid than it used to be, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Dry patches can strike anywhere, though they're especially common on the legs, elbows and upper arms. But why?
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Dry skin is, in part, simply something that happens with age. Certain factors can exacerbate moisture loss and make the problem worse, though. Here are some of the most common reasons older adults deal with dryness, plus the simple ways to help your skin stay hydrated.
1. Natural Skin Changes
It's not just skin's appearance that changes with the years. As we get older, the layers of the skin become thinner and produce less sebum, the oil that keeps skin soft and hydrated.
Skin cells begin to turn over at a slower rate, too, which compromises the skin's protective barrier and makes it less effective at retaining moisture, says Morgana Columbo, MD, a board certified dermatologist in Reston, Virginia.
2. Nutritional Deficiencies and Dehydration
Not getting enough vitamins and minerals — particularly vitamins A and D and niacin, iron and zinc — can contribute to dry skin, notes the AAD. Not drinking enough water can cause skin to feel drier as well.
Older adults are more prone to falling short of the nutrients they need, and they may be more likely to experience dehydration.
"As we age, we often have less of an appetite and desire to drink," says Sharon Allison-Ottey, MD, a geriatrician and member of the HealthyWomen Women's Health Advisory Council.
Stress can strike at any age, but older adults may be more prone to chronic stressors related to health problems, economic concerns or coping with the loss of a partner or loved one.
And these feelings can take a toll on skin. "Stress weakens the skin barrier, allowing for decreased water retention," Dr. Colombo explains.
4. Medications and Medical Treatments
Taking medications like statins, diuretics, antihistamines or laxatives can exacerbate dry skin, Dr. Ottey says.
Medical treatments can have an effect too. Dry skin is a common side effect of dialysis, and it can also occur after undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or targeted therapy for cancer.
Spending lots of time in the sun or tanning bed, either now or in the past, can zap moisture from your skin, per the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
Tanning accelerates the skin's aging process and causes damage to skin cells, both of which weaken the skin's protective barrier and make it harder for skin to hold on to hydration, Dr. Colombo says.
As the skin absorbs more UV rays, collagen fibers in it became more tightly packed, leading to stiffness and a "leathery" look and feel.
How to Treat and Prevent Dry Skin
It's normal for your skin's texture to change as you get older. But there are simple steps you can take to help your skin stay better hydrated, so it doesn't become uncomfortable or itchy.
1. Moisturize Regularly
Slather on a moisturizing lotion or cream within five minutes of showering or bathing, after washing your hands and any time your skin feels dry, recommends the AAD.
"It's the number-one thing to do for dry, itchy skin," Dr. Colombo says.
She suggests seeking out a moisturizer containing ceramides, which can improve the skin's barrier and help it retain more water. Here are two of her favorites:
2. Change Your Shower or Bath Routine
Wash with a fragrance-free cleanser too, Dr. Colombo recommends. Added scents can irritate dry skin. When you step out of the shower, pat your skin dry with a towel instead of rubbing it vigorously.
3. Run a Humidifier
A humidifier adds moisture to your indoor air, keeping skin more hydrated, Dr. Colombo says.
4. Protect Your Skin From Water and Cold
Long periods of exposure to water, cold or wind can make dry skin worse. Wear gloves when you're washing the dishes, gardening or working out in the cold, recommends the AAD.
5. Limit Your Sun Exposure
UV rays from the sun (or tanning beds) can zap skin's moisture. Stay in the shade as much as possible, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher (try one of these dermatologist-recommended picks) and wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face.
6. Hydrate and Eat Right
Drinking plenty of water and maintaining a balanced diet help to provide the hydration and nutrients your skin needs to stay as healthy as possible.
When to See a Doctor About Dry, Itchy Skin
See your dermatologist if your dry skin doesn't improve within a few weeks of at-home measures, especially if you have a red or pink rash in addition to the dry skin. Your doctor can examine your skin and determine if there's an underlying condition causing the dryness, like eczema or psoriasis.
In some rare cases, serious conditions such as lymphoma or liver, kidney or thyroid issues can also present with dry skin, Dr. Colombo notes. Together, you and your doc can determine the culprit and discuss next steps for treatment.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.