As people age, skin becomes thinner and its protective barrier can become damaged. If the condition is left untreated, intense itching, eczema and other dry skin-related c​onditions may develop

Dry skin is among the common ailments that affect the elderly. The skin can feel rough and scaly at first, and if left untreated, this can lead to more serious problems such as intense itching, eczema, and other skin disorders.

Dry skin affects up to 50 per cent of elderly people,” said Assoc Prof Lee Haur Yueh, Head and Senior Consultant for the Department of Dermatology at Singapore General Hospital​ (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group, adding that intense itching, known as pruritus, and eczema are common among the old.

Common causes of dry skin 

1. Physiological changes

The skin undergoes many changes with age. The epidermis, or the uppermost layer of the skin, becomes thinner, and its protective lipid (oil) barrier also becomes damaged, Dr Lee said. These changes weaken the skin’s function as a protective barrier. More moisture is lost from the skin, compounding the problem of dry skin.

At the same time, the skin’s sebaceous glands – microscopic glands that secrete sebum, an oily substance – shrink, slowing down sebum production. Sebum helps to lubricate the skin and hair, and prevents loss of moisture.

Initially, the skin feels dry and scaly, especially on the lower limbs and the body. If this is not treated, the dryness will worsen over time and the areas affected may become itchy, red and inflamed.

Excessive scratching or rubbing will damage and disrupt the skin's barrier function further, leading to a vicious circle of itching and inflammation.

Using harsh soaps, antiseptics or other topical medications may further aggravate the itch or extend the rash to other parts of the body.

“This itchy, inflamed, dry and scaly rash, a result of dryness and repeated itch-scratch cycles, is known as asteatotic eczema, a form of eczema associated with dry skin,” said Dr Lee. “Skin that is inflamed, or develops eczema, is more prone to damage by irritants or allergens.”

2. ​Environmental causes and personal habits​

It’s not just physiological changes that contribute to dry skin. One’s environment and personal habits are also factors. Dry and cold weather, spending long periods in an air-conditioned environment, frequent overseas travel or residence, prolonged baths, hot showers, or the use of harsh cleansers or soaps can strip skin further of its moisture.

“There are many simple steps that can be taken to prevent dry skin and eczema. For a start, changes to the external environment can be made and external triggers removed,” said Dr Lee.

Click on page 2 for tips​ to deal with dry skin.

Ref: R14

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