I'm 85 years old, and my skin sometimes tears open if I bump against something. Why is this, and what can I do about it?

Answers from Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D.

Fragile or thin skin that tears easily is a common problem in older adults. Aging, sun exposure and genetics all play a role in thinning skin. Certain medications, such as long–term use of oral or topical corticosteroids, also can weaken skin and the blood vessels in the skin.

Thin skin isn't necessarily a sign of a serious underlying medical condition. But you may want to see a doctor, who can evaluate your skin and determine why it's so fragile.

To protect thin skin and prevent tears and cuts:

  • Wear long–sleeved shirts, long pants and wide-brimmed hats. Consider wearing two layers to protect the forearms when doing yardwork or gardening, common areas for minor injury to the skin. You might also try wearing tubular or rolled gauze bandages.
  • Avoid prolonged sun exposure.
  • If you must be outside in the sun, use a broad–spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours — or more often if you're swimming or perspiring.
  • Keep skin well–moisturized and protected by using a good moisturizing cream, such as Vanicream, CeraVe or Cetaphil.
  • Talk to your doctor about treating skin with vitamin A (retinol), which may improve the skin's ability to tolerate injuries.
Aug. 05, 2014