To do so properly, it is helpful to understand the basic structure of skin, those things that affect its appearance and function and what can be done to lessen the wear and tear of everyday life. Your skin appearance is influenced in part by external (extrinsic) factors including climate and working environment. Sunlight is one of the most important. Others include smoking, and what you eat (your nutrition). A second set of influences on your skin is internal (intrinsic) factors. Aging itself is obviously an important factor. Also, diseases such as diabetes can have effects.
A useful way of thinking about skin is to compare it to the outside of a house. A new house looks fresh and bright, but the time comes when the effects of age and weather begin to show and it needs attention.
Like a house exterior, there are several layers that make up skin. The outer layer is the epidermis which is surprisingly tough on many body parts (for example the palms of your hands). Beneath this layer is the dermis rather like the thick part of the house wall. It nourishes the outer layer, gives some insulation in the form of fat, and contains some of the wiring (nerves and blood vessels). Clearly, what happens both inside and outside the house can affect its appearance. What are these effects and how can we lessen the damage they do to skin?
One important step you can take at any age is to protect your skin from the harmful effects of sun (called ultraviolet or UV light). The older you get, the more important it is to avoid excess UV light. Like weathered shingles on a roof, your skin becomes more 'leaky' with age and light rays can penetrate more easily. Skin cancers can develop. As well, other conditions such as excessive thickening, wrinkling and sagging of skin tissues can occur.
A broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses (less squinting means less wrinkling around the eyes) and covering up exposed areas with clothing or a good sunblock cream will help to avoid the problems caused by too much UV light. (Of course, any growth that is enlarging or developing into a sore should be checked by your doctor.)
The need to avoid too much sunlight must be balanced with the importance of getting some natural light every day. The ideal natural light is out of doors. Sunlight helps to keep your mood brighter, especially during those long dark days of winter months. You also need sun to help your body make vitamin D. This helps you to absorb from food the calcium needed for stronger bones.
A sun-tanning salon is not a good way to obtain sunlight. The amounts of UV light from this source are over what you need for your health, and you are more likely to hasten your skin aging. Remember that 'tanning' also refers to the making of leather. Is that what you want for skin?
Another external factor affecting the skin is tobacco smoke. Exposure to smoke can cause a pale, yellowish and unhealthy colour.
Internal factors that affect your skin can be more difficult to control. In general a healthy looking exterior (skin) usually means a healthy interior (organs). For example, if your liver is diseased, it can give a jaundiced (yellow) colour to the skin. Taking good care of medical illness, such as kidney disease, diabetes or anemia, is reflected in healthier looking skin.
The skin also has its own disorders such as psoriasis, eczema, infections or rashes. Getting older causes the skin to change with the passing years. These changes show up as more wrinkles, a thinning fat layer in the dermis (so that bruises occur more easily), and liver spots (areas of darker colour that look like large freckles) from sun damage.
Inhaling tobacco smoke will cause permanent skin changes which include pale colour, fine wrinkles and thinning.
It is important to repeat that any skin area that seems different from the rest or is changing rapidly should be seen by your doctor. Skin cancer is still the most common cancer and mostly curable with early treatment.
Although wrinkles are seldom a sign of disease, most people would rather have few of them! A form of vitamin A (called tretinoin) applied directly to the skin surface has been used successfully to lessen wrinkles. It must be prescribed by a doctor and can have side effects such as reddening of the skin. (This is usually temporary.) Vitamin A cream is most helpful for very fine wrinkles. It will not change deep wrinkles in the face.
As the skin ages, other changes occur that should not be ignored. Because aging skin is easily damaged, it should not be exposed to harsh soaps, detergents or chemicals such as household cleansers, or to excessive cleansing. These products can seriously affect the protective function of skin as well as causing direct irritation. The simple use of rubber gloves can help prevent a good deal of this exposure.
Winter’s dry, cold air can cause itchy and irritated skin, appropriately called 'winter itch' (xerosis). Older skin produces fewer natural oils and is prone to this condition. Moisturising lotions or oils applied to the skin will help to prevent the dryness which is so common in our later years.
In certain groups of people, such as those bedridden or confined to wheelchairs, and those with diabetes or circulation problems, it is important to avoid pressure sores or other causes of skin breakdown. These can go on to form deep ulcers which are slow to heal. Damaged skin is also more likely to become infected with fungus (causing infections of skin and nails), as well as with disease-causing bacteria.
Skin is a well-adapted tissue that forms a protective barrier against harmful exterior factors, but which can itself be harmed by some of those very things. Preventive measures can lessen these damaging effects. Furthermore, good health tends to show itself in healthy looking skin. Although skin ages along with other parts of the body, it does not need to be any older than the rest of us. If we take good care of ourselves, our skin will look younger and be healthier as we age.