What Makes Skin Dry as We Age?
Dermatologist Sonia Badreshia-Bansal, MD, says fewer natural oils, sun damage, and decreased cell renewal can all lead to dry, rougher skin as we get older.
Loss of hormones can also lead to drier skin. Dermatologist Carolyn Jacob, MD, says, "The skin doesn't produce as much natural moisturizing factor as it used to, and the top layers of skin become dry."
So what can you do today to help keep skin supple tomorrow?
Smooth on the Sunscreen
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that sun damage is the major cause of unwanted changes to the skin.
The sun's rays can be as intense in winter as in summer. The damage those UVA and UVB rays cause not only speeds up the skin's aging process, it can also lead to spider veins, age spots, wrinkles, and melanomas.
To protect your skin every day and all year, use a sunscreen containing a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater. Leslie Baumann, MD, director of the Cosmetic Medicine and Research Institute at the University of Miami, says reach for a broad-spectrum sunscreen -- one that protects against UVA and UVB rays. Be sure to reapply generously at least every two hours you're outside, and more often if you're in and out of the water or working up a sweat.
And don't forget your lips, the AAD says. "Lips get sunburned too, so apply a lip balm that contains sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher."
Finally, wear a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing, like a long-sleeved shirt and pants, and stay out of the sun when it's at its most intense, which is usually between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Vitamin A Is Vital
Vitamin A is another weapon in your fight against dry, prematurely aging skin.
To help keep skin looking its best, "a vitamin A cream is very important," Badreshia-Bansal says. That's because creams enhanced with vitamin A can help prevent wrinkles and pigmentation.
Florida dermatologist Andrea Lynn Cambio, MD, FAAD, agrees. She considers vitamin A derivatives, like retinoids, the most important nutrient in maintaining smooth, healthy skin.
Chemically related to vitamin A, retinoids such as retinol, Atralin, Differin, Retin A, and Tazarac slow down collagen breakdown, Jacob says. Collagen, along with elastin, is a fibrous protein vital in keeping skin firm, elastic, and youthful-looking.
"Adding a topical retinoid -- over the counter or by prescription -- is a great way to undo some sun damage, fine lines, and wrinkles and give a brighter, healthier glow," Cambio says.
You can also give your diet a vitamin A boost by eating foods such as low-fat milk and cheese, eggs, leafy greens, oranges, carrots, and cantaloupe.
Amp Up the Antioxidants and Healthy Oils
Antioxidants are important to great skin because they slow down and may prevent the harm done to your body by free radicals. Free radical damage is one factor behind signs of aging such as wrinkles and dry skin.
You can find antioxidants in all kinds of good foods, including tangerines, sweet potatoes, papayas, peppers, citrus fruits, cherries, spinach, olives, and grapes as well as in light canned tuna in oil, cooked beef, whole wheat pasta, green tea, and sardines.
Be sure to get essential fatty acids like omega-3s and omega-6s in your diet to replenish your skin's natural protective oils. Olive and canola oils, salmon, mackerel, walnuts, and flax are all good choices. These essential fatty acids encourage smoother skin and may help clear blemishes.
When looking for antioxidants in skin care creams, reach for products with green tea, caffeine, and grape seed extract, Baumann, author of The Skin Type Solution, says. The AAD suggests adding antioxidant-enriched sunscreens to your arsenal too, because antioxidants also have sun-protection properties.
Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize
To decrease the look of fine lines and wrinkles, you want to moisturize skin well.
Jacob gives a thumbs up to moisturizers with glycolic acid, but you don't need to get too stuck on specific types of moisturizers. Many products help trap in moisture and keep skin supple. Petroleum jelly, mineral oil, aloe vera, and glycerin can do the job.
For best results, apply your preferred lotion, cream, or ointment two or three minutes after bathing. First pat skin dry with a towel (don't rub), then smooth on your moisturizer.
A word of caution: Moisturizers often contain chemicals meant to help your skin hold water, such as urea, alpha-hydroxy acids, lactic acid, or ammonium lactate, the AAD says. Some of these can cause irritation. Talk to a dermatologist before buying creams with these chemicals if you already have troubled skin.
Get Smart About How You Clean Your Skin
The bad news: Long, hot showers should be a thing of the past if you're eager to discourage dry skin.
The good news: Shorter, warm showers don't strip your skin of its natural oil barrier like piping hot showers do. Your body can retain more of the moisture your skin needs to look smooth and fresh.
Wash with non-scented, soap-free cleansers to maintain your skin’s vital oil barrier. Lather only the spots that really need cleansing, such as the armpits, groin, face, and back. A simple water-wash is all you usually need for the rest of your body.
Finally, be careful with exfoliants, which can irritate dry skin, Badreshia-Bansal says. Though they can help remove dead skin cells, exfoliants should be used sparingly if your skin is dry and during winter months. Jacob recommends exfoliators with built-in moisturizers.
Whole-Body Benefits of Dry Skin Care
Taking good care of your skin has a great side benefit: It usually means you're taking great care of the rest of your body too.
Wearing sunscreen and eating a balanced diet rich in natural antioxidants and essential fatty acids will help you stay strong, healthy, and looking good.