Fragile skin is skin that tears or breaks easily. Pulling off a bandage or bumping against a piece of furniture can cause a wound. It is a common skin problem in aging adults.
What is fragile skin?
Your skin has three layers — the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous — according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Each layer provides specific functions. For example, the epidermis, or outer layer, contains pigments, which give your skin its color. The dermis, or middle layer, provides nutrients to the epidermis. All three layers contain collagen and elastin fibers that give your skin flexibility and strength. As you age, levels of collagen and elastin decrease, causing your skin to wrinkle and sag. If you have fragile skin, you might also notice that your skin looks thinner, paler, and translucent.
What causes fragile skin?
Aging is the most common cause of fragile skin. Besides the loss of collagen and elastin, you the amount of fatty tissue in your hypodermis, which is the deep protective layer of skin, decreases. Overexposure to the sun, including cumulative exposure, can damage the collagen in your skin.
There are a few medical conditions that can cause thinning of your skin:
Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is a group of genetic disorders that affect collagen production. People with these conditions often have thin and weak skin.
Amyloidosis is a group of disorders that can cause a buildup of antibodies that are produced by the bone marrow. These antibodies can lead to either thinning or thickening of the skin.
The long-term use of corticosteroids, orally or topically, can also cause your skin to thin. These medications are used to help relieve swelling and itching. Using corticosteroids short-term, for example, to relieve the itch from an insect bite or to reduce swelling from hives, does not cause problems, however, long-term use can damage your skin. Genetics often play a role in thinning of skin. If your parents or grandparents had fragile skin, you are also more likely to develop it.
Complications of fragile skin
Fragile skin tears easily. Bumping into furniture, scratching an itch, removing a bandage, or even vigorous washing or drying your skin can cause a tear. This happens when the epidermis and dermis separate from the underlying tissue and most often occurs on the arms and lower legs, however, it can happen on any part of the body. As you age, wounds take four times longer to heal than for younger people, according to the NIH. This increases the chances of developing an infection, especially if you find it difficult to use a bandage. It can lead to skin loss, soreness, bruising, and blood clots.
Tips for managing fragile skin
Declutter your environment. A light bump into furniture or other belongings can tear your skin or cause a bruise. To minimize your risk, keep your environment free of clutter.
Cover your arms and legs with soft, cotton socks to help prevent tearing your skin. Cut a hole in socks to make gloves for your arms. Wear these around the house. When going outside, wear long sleeve shirts and long pants.
Keep your nails trimmed. Scratching your skin can cause it to tear. Trim your nails regularly. If you have pets, keep their nails trimmed as well.
Drink plenty of water. As you age, you can become dehydrated quicker than when you were young. Dehydration can cause dry, itchy skin. Drinking plenty of fluids helps your skin stay hydrated.
Use moisturizers liberally. Aging skin doesn’t produce as much oil and can become dry, which can lead to scratching. Use a nourishing skin cream which can help moisturize your skin and protect from further moisture loss.
Pat dry after bathing. Rubbing a towel against your skin can cause irritation and tears. Look for soft, cotton towels and pat your skin dry after a shower or bath.
Avoid sun exposure. While it is the cumulative effects of the sun that cause skin damage, protecting your skin from the ultraviolet rays of the sun can help prevent further damage. Use sunscreen, wear a wide brimmed hat, and try to avoid direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Avoid using sticky bandages as these can pull areas of your skin off when removed. If you do have a cut or tear, cover with a cotton pad and wrap an elastic bandage around
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.