8 dermatologist secrets for smoother, healthier skin

Your skin changes as you age, and so should the way you treat it. Here’s how to help protect your complexion — and your health.

Brittany Risher
Mature woman applying skin cream.

You don’t need a doctor to tell you that skin changes as you age. But it’s more than just wrinkles. In fact, you may not realize all the ways your skin shifts with time — or why. 

We asked dermatologists what they want every older adult to know about their outer layer, plus how to best care for it. Here are their secrets to smoother, softer, more glowing skin at any age.

Secret #1: Your Skin Is Thirsty

With age, the skin barrier weakens and isn’t as effective at regulating hydration levels, explains dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, M.D. The result is often dry, itchy and sometimes flaky skin. 

To cope with easily irritated skin, she recommends staying well-hydrated. Our sense of thirst weakens as we age, so it’s important to drink water even when you’re not parched. In addition, Dr. Mraz Robinson suggests using lotions rich in ceramides.

Ceramides are one of the types of naturally occurring lipids in the body. They help lock in moisture on the top layer of your skin. But they’re not in endless supply. Dry skin is often caused by a loss of these natural ceramides, she says. That’s where skin care products come in: Those with ceramides can help replace them, at least to a degree. (You’ll see ceramides listed in the ingredients section of the label, or even on the front of the package.)

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Another way to keep your skin moisturized actually happens in the shower. Long showers and hot water can strip your skin of its natural oils, says dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D. Use warm water instead, and try to limit your showers to 5 minutes. 

Secret #2: Wounds Heal Differently as You Age

Bruising more easily? Cuts taking longer to heal? It’s not a coincidence. The building blocks of skin are collagen, which keeps skin plump and smooth, and elastin, for flexibility. When you’re younger, this duo is plentiful. As you age, both take a dive. 

And “decreasing collagen and elastin don’t just result in wrinkles, but also skin that is overall less resilient to injury,” says Dr. Mraz Robinson. 

Eating foods packed with vitamin C can help increase collagen production in the skin, according to the National Institutes of Health. Vitamin C pills aren’t the best answer, though. When you choose whole foods like peppers, sweet potatoes, broccoli, citrus fruits and strawberries over vitamin C supplements, you get the added benefit of other nutrients that your body needs on a daily basis.

Encourage healing of a cut or other minor wound, says Dr. Jaliman, by cleaning it twice daily and using an antibiotic ointment or petroleum jelly before covering it with a bandage.

Secret #3: Your Skin Likes Simplicity 

Getting older means getting thinner — at least when it comes to your skin. And thinner skin is more sensitive skin, so you don’t want to overload it with a bunch of nonessential skin care additives.

Consider what you’re putting on your face and body. “Try to buy cleansers and lotions with the fewest number of ingredients,” says Dr. Jaliman. Like Dr. Mraz Robinson, she recommends products that contain ceramides, which help restore the skin’s barrier — and in turn, keep out potential nuisances like pollution and free radicals. 

Two other good ingredients to look for: hyaluronic acid and glycerin. Both are humectants, meaning they pull moisture from the air into the skin. 

As important as what’s in your products is what isn’t. Avoid irritants, such as parabens, alcohol and fragrances (avoid the latter even in dryer sheets and detergents, says Dr. Jaliman). Check labels carefully, and ask your dermatologist or the store pharmacist if you’re unsure about any ingredient listed. 

Secret #4: Watch for Any New Skin Changes

Common among older adults are new growths such as skin tags (these look like small balloons attached to the skin by a thin “stalk”) or brown, crusty scabs called seborrheic keratoses. Sure, they can be annoying, but thankfully neither is cancerous.

Still, Dr. Mraz Robinson says they’re a reminder to be vigilant about shifts in your skin that could be signs of cancer. She recommends seeing a board-certified dermatologist to check out any changes. That’s in addition to a yearly dermatologist appointment for a head-to-toe skin check. 

For the months in between, try getting in the habit of giving your skin a good once over every month at home. You can find the steps for this and five more simple do-it-yourself health checks here.

Secret #5: You Still Need Sunscreen

Your sunbathing days may be behind you, but sunscreen should always be your friend. There are a few reasons for this, one being that cumulative ultraviolet (UV) damage from just venturing outside for errands and the like can build up. Another reason is that many medications and even some skin care products (such as wrinkle-fighting retinol) make you more sensitive to the sun, says Dr. Mraz Robinson. 

What’s more, as you get older, the number of cells responsible for skin pigment (called melanocytes) decreases. “This leaves older adults with less natural protection from UV radiation than younger people,” Dr. Mraz Robinson explains. 

She recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen made with physical blockers (aka mineral sunscreens) such as zinc or titanium dioxide. These are less likely than chemical sunscreens to irritate your skin, she says. 

For more sunscreen tips, check out the 4 Sun-Safety Facts Every Older Adult Should Know.

Secret #6: Your Perspiration Patterns Change

We actually sweat less as we age because our sweat glands become less effective. While that may sound like a positive thing (no dripping during a workout!), it means your body’s natural cooling mechanism — sweat — is working slower. In turn, you can become overheated more quickly.

Wearing natural fibers like cotton or linen instead of synthetics can help keep you cool. Dr. Jaliman says. And on hot days it may sound obvious, but bears repeating: Drink plenty of water and stay out of the sun.

Secret #7: Your Lips Aren’t Actually Fading Away

With increasing flips of the calendar, dry skin can build up over the lips and create the illusion that the lip line is fading or thinning, says Dr. Mraz Robinson. In reality, a good exfoliation can help keep up appearances. 

To help gently dissolve dead skin cell buildup, she suggests using a homemade exfoliant once a week: Combine sugar with honey, shea butter or coconut oil to form a thick paste. Rub this on your lips in small circles, then wipe it off and apply a hydrating lip balm. The sloughing you just did will allow the lip balm’s moisture to better penetrate.

Secret #8: Your Medications Can Mess With Your Skin

You probably know that medications come with a list of possible side effects. But what may be a surprise is that skin reactions — everything from hives and blisters to measles-like sores — are among the most common. 

What makes one person more prone to having a reaction than another remains a bit of a mystery. But older adults and those who take multiple medications tend to have more reactions, suggests a 2018 review in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

If you’re prescribed a new medication (or put on a different dose of an existing one) and experience hives, a rash or other skin changes, it’s important to alert your prescribing doctor and ask for best next steps, says Dr. Mraz Robinson. Keep in mind that it’s possible to have a new reaction to a medication that you’ve been taking for weeks, months or even years. Substances used during X-rays (like iodine) can also trigger hives or other skin outbreaks.

In some cases, slathering on an over-the-counter topical steroid or slipping into an oatmeal bath may ease discomfort until your body adjusts to the medication. But if the reaction persists, your doctor may need to adjust the dose or find an alternative medication.