How to Protect Sensitive Skin in Cold Weather
As we age, our skin becomes thinner and more fragile. This is part of the natural aging process, but also related to genetics and sun exposure throughout our lifetime. For elderly persons, the harsh conditions of winter can make that already delicate skin more vulnerable to injury.
For some, dry skin can be caused by health problems such as kidney disease or diabetes, or medication side effects. Dry skin can be also symptomatic of a larger health issue that should be examined by a healthcare professional.
Why Skin Becomes so Fragile
As we age, we lose elasticity due to less collagen and less elastic. Skin loses fat and becomes thinner. Our bodies no longer produce as many new cells as it did when we were younger. Thinner skin also means veins and sometimes even bones are more visible. This is from loss of the fat cells underneath the skin and loss of supporting connective tissue.
Thin skin is more vulnerable to injury and can tear quite easily. It can take much longer for damage to heal on someone with older skin who may also have a weakened immune system.
Winter Weather Doesn't Help
Winter weather can cause already delicate skin to become even more susceptible to damage. There are several reasons for this:
- Lower Humidity: less humidity means there is less water vapor in the air, so there is less hydration in the air for our skin to absorb. Your skin may feel tight or itchy due to the lower amounts of moisture.
- Indoor Heating: hot, heated air is just plain drier. In the winter, we rely on that hot air to warm our homes, cars and offices. But that continued exposure to dry air means our skin will actually thicken because the dead layer of skin cells isn't shed as quickly. Slower renewal of those new skin cells means dry, thick skin can crack and cause discomfort.
- Thicker Skin: As noted above, our skin can get thicker in the winter time because dead skin cells are not being sloughed off. In addition, our bodies naturally react to cold temperatures by causing the skin to become thicker in order to protect and insulate our internal organs. Naturally thickened skin plus the drying effects of indoor heating is a recipe for cracked, painful skin.
- Lower Oil Production: our sebaceous glands are emulating bears and go into a sort of hibernation. They produce less oil to hydrate the skin and thus it's more difficult to maintain a healthy epidermal barrier. Sebaceous gland production in elderly people is already reduced, so in winter time they are even more at a disadvantage.
Protect Your Skin in Winter
There are some simple steps we can all follow to help protect our skin during winter. These steps are especially important for the elderly population that already have more delicate skin.
- Hydrate! Drink lots of fluids, especially water. Keeping your body hydrated in the winter is just as important for keeping the skin hydrated in the winter as it is in the summer.
- Reduce the water temperature when you are bathing. Like hot air, hot water can be very drying on your skin and can even strip away essential oils from your skin. A hot bath sounds delightful on a cold winter day, but keep the temperature more mild to protect your skin.
- Use mild soaps and detergents that add moisture to your skin.
- Moisturize! Drugstore shelves are stocked full of creams, ointments and moisturizers designed specifically to combat the effects of winter weather. Find one that is compatible with your skin and use it. A lot!
- Wear long sleeves. For elderly people with fragile skin, their skin can tear very easily. Wearing long sleeves and long pants will give their skin another layer of protection.
- Use a humidifier to put moisture back into the air.
Keep an Eye on Skin Conditions
If you think you or a loved one have abnormal skin dryness or damage not linked to winter weather, make an appointment to have it checked out. Dry skin can be itchy and uncomfortable, but if you suspect there is something more than just winter weather at play, see your healthcare professional immediately.