The answer is simple: Hormones, specifically estrogen. It turns out that the same hormone behind so many of your body's changes may be responsible for dry skin problems at menopause, too.
What's Happening: Dry Skin and Menopause
Somewhere between the ages of 40 and 58 most women enter menopause. This is when the ovaries stop releasing eggs, periods come to an end, and the production of estrogen begins to decline.
Estrogen is a powerhouse hormone. It stimulates maturation of a girl's body at puberty. It helps keep a woman's bones strong.
Another thing estrogen does is stimulate the formation of skin-smoothing collagen and oils. That's why, as menopause approaches and estrogen production diminishes, dry, itchy skin becomes very common, says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery.
That reduction of estrogen, and the changing ratios of hormones in your body, don't just slow down your body's oil production, they also reduce your body's ability to retain moisture.
While a parched t-zone or flakey elbows may be the first places you notice the changes, "it really is a whole-body phenomenon," says Tanzi, with dry skin appearing just about anywhere, from the oil-gland-dense face, back, and chest, to elbows, legs, genitals -- even nails.
The changes to your skin can start as early as perimenopause, and they're permanent, Tanzi says. Fortunately, easing the itch and combating the dry skin associated with menopause is largely in your hands.
5 Tips for Dry Skin Care During Menopause
To help turn dry, problem skin into smoother, fresher skin, experts offer these quick tips for women in menopause.
- Focus on smart fats: Essential fatty acids -- like the omega-3s found in salmon, walnuts, fortified eggs, or algae oils -- help produce your skin's oil barrier, vital in keeping skin hydrated. A diet short of these body-boosting fats can leave skin dry, itchy, and prone to acne. Most of us have a diet low in omega-3s, which are also found in sardines, soy, safflower oil, and flax.
- Smooth on that sunscreen: Keep skin healthy with "a broad spectrum sunblock with an SPF of 15 or higher," says Andrea Cambio, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Cape Coral, Fla.
Dry skin, wrinkles, moles, and skin cancers can all result from too much sun, so add a sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection to your line of defense. Aim for about an ounce to cover all sun-exposed skin.
And if you think an overcast day means you don't need sunscreen, think again. Skin-damaging ultraviolet light can penetrate clouds, fog, even snow.
- Stop those steamy showers: Piping-hot baths and showers may feel fabulous, but "hot water ... can be very harsh to the skin and dry it out miserably," Cambio tells WebMD. Stop stripping your skin of its natural oils. Take shorter showers and use warm water.
Also, preserve those natural oils by scrubbing with soap only in the spots you really need it, Tanzi suggests, like your underarms, feet, and groin. Because your legs, back, and arms don't usually get very dirty, skip the soap and stick to a warm-water wash for these areas.
- Use a gentle soap: Scented, antibacterial, or deodorant soaps can be harsh, removing your body's essential oils, leaving skin even more itchy and dry. Instead, reach for an unscented or lightly scented bar.
- Remember to moisturize: Within a few minutes after your warm shower, smooth on your favorite moisturizer. You may favor a pricey potion from the cosmetic counter, but humbler lotions like mineral oil and petroleum jelly help trap in much-needed moisture, too.
As moisturizers go, petroleum jelly is "one of the best," Tanzi tells WebMD. It does a good job of moisturizing even the driest skin. "Slather it on after bathing, then use a towel to gently pat off the excess."
For dry skin problems on the face, Cambio suggests topical antioxidants such as vitamin C or green tea. Other moisturizers recommended by the experts include shea butter, hyaluronic acid, and lactic acid.
To help moisturizers penetrate the skin, the pros also suggest exfoliating -- sloughing off the top layer of dead skin -- with a gentle scrubbing or by using products containing alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids.
And remember you can hydrate from the inside out by drinking water, says Valerie D. Callender, MD, a dermatologist practicing in Maryland. Equally important is reducing or eliminating alcohol and nicotine, both of which can prematurely age and dry your skin.
Exercise, which is important in menopause for heart and bone health, can keep skin healthy as well. By increasing the amount of nutrients and oxygen that make it to your skin, exercise, like estrogen, can increases collagen, one of the key substances that keeps our skin youthful.
Dry, Itchy Skin: Still Scratching?
The hormone changes of menopause aren't the only causes of dry skin. Hypothyroidism, fungal infections, vitamin deficiencies, and other issues can also lead to skin care problems, too.
If you follow a careful skin care regimen and still have dry skin problems, it may be time to call a dermatologist.
"Perimenopause and menopause can lead to many changes, not just dry skin," says Tanzi. Acne, wrinkles, and thinning skin can all show up around this time, making it hard to figure out how to care for skin. A dermatologist can help you develop a regimen tailored to you particular skin care needs.
Check the American Academy of Dermatology's web site to locate board-certified dermatologists in your area, or ask your primary care physician for a recommendation.
Dry skin at menopause may take you by surprise, but fortunately you've got lots of choices to help you care for that beautiful skin you're in.