Helping an Older Loved One Maintain Healthy Skin Care to Prevent Common Skin Conditions
The skin is the body's largest organ. It is also the only organ that we can see on the surface. Skin protects our bodies from heat, cold, sunlight, air pollution, injuries and other environmental stresses, and for some of us, it can be an important aspect of personal beauty and style. The skin is also first to show visible signs of the aging process such as:
- Wrinkles around the eyes and lines on the forehead
- Dry, thin, fragile, itchy or sagging skin
- Thinning hair or baldness
- Rough skin that bruises easily and heals slowly
These changes in the skin occur in almost all of us as we age and are a normal part of the aging process. However, many other skin conditions common in older adults can vary from person to person, and some can even be warning signs of skin cancer. As caregivers, it is important to understand which skin conditions are harmless or potentially dangerous, and how to best take care of a loved one’s skin to reduce their risk of skin cancer.
Common skin conditions in older adults
Many skin changes are caused by a lifetime of exposure to the sun. Most of these changes are harmless, but as they may be a sign of cancer in some cases, they should be examined by a dermatologist. Common sun-related skin changes include:
- "Liver spots" or "age spots" on the hands and arms. Over-the-counter products are available to make them less visible, but they do not require medical attention, as they are harmless. Using sunscreen or avoiding direct sunlight can prevent liver spots from developing.
- Seborrheic keratosis. These are skin growths often found on the face, chest, shoulders and back. They develop more often on people with lighter skin and often run in families. Treatment is not usually needed unless they become irritated.
- "Skin tags," or papillomas. These are raised growths that appear on the face, neck or groin. They are harmless, although they can become irritated if clothes rub against them. Because papillomas resemble certain types of skin cancer, a loved one’s doctor may refer a dermatologist for a more thorough examination of these growths. Papillomas can be removed by a doctor or dermatologist using "cold surgery," a procedure that freezes affected areas with liquid nitrogen, with minimal discomfort.
- Dry skin and itching. Common causes of dry skin are dry air, decreased perspiration, not drinking enough liquids and smoking. Diabetes, kidney disease and other disorders can also cause skin to be dry. Using moisturizers and milder soap can help ease dryness. Taking warm instead of hot baths or showers can also help, especially in winter.
- Wrinkles. These are a common sign of aging. Once wrinkles begin to appear, there isn't much that can be done to prevent or erase them. If a loved one is a smoker, quitting can reduce the amount of toxic chemicals, which accelerate the aging progress, from their body. Reducing amounts of squinting and frowning can also keep lines around the eyes and mouth from deepening.
Keep in mind that many common skin disorders which appear later in life can be cured when diagnosed and treated promptly, so do not neglect to report anything concerning to a professional for a closer look.
Maintaining healthy skin care routines
Many skin disorders and discomforts, particularly issues with dry skin, can often be prevented with simple skin care routines and lifestyle changes, such as:
- Encouraging a loved to avoid hot showers or long soaks in the bathtub that can dry out already-dry skin, unless they are recommended by a physician
- Choosing mild, fragrance-free soaps, lotions, shampoos and sunscreens
- Forgoing a daily shampoo if a loved one has dry, non-oily hair
- Towel drying hair instead of using a hairdryer
- Avoiding permanents and hair coloring for scalp and hair health
- Taking walks and working outdoors in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid sunburn
A loved one should examine their skin every month for possible signs of cancer. The best time to do a skin exam is before a bath or shower. A loved one can begin by standing in front of a full length mirror and using a handheld mirror to examine different parts of skin, including the scalp and spaces between fingers and toes, for:
- Sores that don't heal
- Any new growth
- Bleeding moles or birthmarks
- Moles with irregular borders, or that have experienced changes in shape, size or color
A loved one’s primary care doctor may also discover signs of skin cancer during a routine physical and refer a dermatologist. Some effective treatments are available, especially if the cancer is diagnosed in its early stages. If the cancer is caught before it has spread, many tumors related to skin cancer can be cured with surgical removal in the dermatologist’s ofﬁce under local anesthesia. Waiting until the growth increases may require more extensive treatments.
Preventing skin cancer
Because the most common cause of skin cancer is sun exposure, it can be easily prevented by using a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or over daily, and SPF of 30 or higher when spending extended time outdoors. To reduce risk further, a loved one should:
- Apply sunscreen 15-20 minutes before going out, even on cloudy days
- Apply sunscreen generously on all parts of the body exposed to the sun, including the part in their hair, the back of their neck or any bald spots.
- Apply protective lip balm to the lips
- Wear a hat, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirt or cover up to reduce skin exposure
- Use sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. They are less irritating and are not absorbed into the skin.
- Stay out of the sun when possible between 10:00 am and 4:00pm when the sun's rays are the strongest.
Consider encouraging an older loved one to wear a hat in the sun, such as a straw fedora, sun visor or wide-brimmed sun hat to provide extra protection on sunny days. We should follow our loved one’s example and keep our heads covered when outside in the sun too.
A version of this article appeared in Private Health News.