My mother is 85 years old. Her skin is so thin that if she bumps against something, her skin tears open. Why is this, and what can we do about it?

Answers from Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D.

Fragile or thin skin that tears easily is a fairly common problem, especially 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, can also weaken skin and the blood vessels in the skin.

Thin skin isn't necessarily a sign of a serious underlying medical condition but should be evaluated by a doctor to determine its cause.

To protect thin skin and prevent tears and cuts:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and wide-brimmed hats.
  • Avoid prolonged sun exposure.
  • If you must be outside in the sun, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (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 quality moisturizing cream, such as Vanicream, Cetaphil or Eucerin.
  • Talk to your doctor about treating skin with vitamin A (retinol) which may improve the skin's ability to tolerate injuries.
Sep. 27, 2011