It makes sense that moisturizing the skin is the best way to keep it from getting dry and itchy.
But what if there is a link between dry skin and a host of age-related diseases?
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have concluded that age-damaged skin could be a contributing factor to a number of age-related conditions such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Aged humans exhibit chronic, subclinical systemic inflammation, commonly termed ‘inflamm-aging’, which has been further linked to the downstream emergence of a variety of age-associated chronic disorders, including cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Mao-Qiang Man, the study’s senior author and dermatologist at UCSF, explained to Healthline.
To understand this, it helps to understand what cytokines are.
These small proteins are released by the body’s immune system to signal inflammation in damaged areas of the skin.
If enough of them get into the circulation system, the “inflamm-aging” process begins. Older adults are more prone to this because their skin is more prone to damage.
After the UCSF study concluded, researchers found that seniors who used three milliliters of skin cream to moisturize, twice a day, had significantly fewer cytokines linked to chronic diseases.
Dr. Gayatri Devi, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and author of a book on Alzheimer’s disease, told Healthline that it’s long been understood that inflammatory markers are associated with pathological changes associated with aging such as cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s disease.
“The idea of using a simple treatment like a skin emollient as one way to reduce age-associated inflammation is both intriguing and appealing, and worth further evaluation,” she said.
Another expert interviewed by Healthline says that the research highlights the importance of properly moisturized skin — especially in older adults.
It’s our largest organ and the main barrier between our insides and the outside world. But skin health isn’t always top of mind when it comes time to see a doctor.
One of the best ways to maintain good skin health is to simply keep it hydrated.
“From a best-practice standpoint, it’s absolutely important for patients — whether they’re younger or older — to try to moisturize the skin,” explained Dr. Susan Massick, a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Basic hydration helps preserve the barrier of the skin, the barrier to the outside world. It’s important to maintain that aspect, particularly for older folks who have a more difficult time in terms of maintaining moisture to the skin.”
So what exactly happens to our skin as we age?
For starters, gravity tends to take over and the skin loses its elasticity. This can thin the skin out and hinder its ability to maintain proper moisturization.
Then there’s the fact that merely exposing our skin to the outside world has negative long-term effects.
“As we age, you’ll see more issues with regard to the long-term effects of ultraviolet light on the skin,” said Massick. “There’s thinning of the skin, slower healing, easy bruising, but more importantly, concerns about skin cancers and melanomas. There are also chronic, inflammatory conditions like eczema and psoriasis that continue on at any age range, but can certainly be more of a struggle as we get older.”
While the UCSF study had a relatively small cohort, the results carry an important practical lesson: moisturizing is important, particularly for older adults.
The study participants had highly specific moisturizing instructions. In everyday practice, it isn’t necessary to be this exact.
For starters, says Massick, it’s best to clean the body using unscented soaps and body washes, as the products with fragrances and perfumes tend to contain irritants that can negatively affect the skin.
When it comes to using moisturizing products, it’s best to use items with specific traits.
“The creams tend to be more moisturizing than lotions because they have more lipids and oils in them, so they provide more hydration to the skin,” said Massick.
As for the best time to moisturize, Massick recommends doing so right after getting out of the bath or shower because it helps to maintain the moisture that’s already in the skin after a good soak.
Finally, it’s important to remember that too much heat can dry the body out.
“In the shower, it’s best to avoid the really hot water that tends to dry people out. That’s why patients have more difficulty with dry skin in the winter because they’ve got the heat on and they’re taking hot showers,” explained Massick.
Man, the study’s senior author, said that proper moisturization is one of the biggest takeaways of the study.
“Using safe and effective products to take care of your skin could benefit health, particularly for the elderly and subjects with certain conditions such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis,” he said.
Aging can negatively affect the skin in all sorts of ways.
Overly dry and irritated skin can even create conditions that contribute to the development of certain diseases.
Patients who want to maintain properly moisturized skin should take steps to apply moisturizer regularly and see a dermatologist if there are concerns.