Skin Is In

By Valerie Lemke

May 15, 2009 5 min read


Saving face is possible after years of sun damage

Valerie Lemke

Creators News Service

Today's senior citizens grew up in an era without many of today's amenities -- sunscreen being one of them.

"Fifty years ago suntans gave the message of having leisure time," said Kerry Blacker, dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. "The tan became a status symbol."

Today, among the health- and appearance-conscious, the pendulum has swung. Sunscreens have replaced tan-enhancing solutions such as baby oil mixed with Mercurochrome, and hats are now the fashion for a sunny day.

All the while, mature Americans are paying for their youthful sunbathing with fine lines, wrinkles, dryness, roughness and a sallow complexion. Surprisingly, weathered skin, which many perceive as inevitable, is not caused by the march of time, but rather by extrinsic factors such as sunning and smoking, according to Blacker.

"Actually, there are not a lot of changes to the skin that happen because of aging," Blacker said. "Those that do -- [such as] a decrease in the skin's elasticity and an increase in dryness -- are pretty subtle and very gradual."

Seniors can assess this reality on their own by investigating areas of their body, such as the upper arms, bust or buttocks, which have been highly protected from the sun throughout life, according to Blacker.

Jeffrey Parks, a board certified dermatologist in Ormond Beach, Fla., knows the effects of sun damage very well. With offices located in a retirement community on Florida's east coast, most of his clientele is 65 years and older. He sees about 200 patients a week in a practice that tends to focus on skin cancer detection and removal.

"Theirs is a population raised without sunscreen and I'm seeing the end result of that sun damage," he said. Leathery skin and mottled, brownish coloring on the surface are some signs. Parks also sees seniors with thinning skin that bruises easily, but he said this is probably due to medication.

Fortunately for this population, there are products that, when coupled with daily skin care, can alleviate the sun damage seniors incurred until well into their eighties.

Dermatologists, including Parks, also offer non-surgical procedures such as Botox, microdermabrasion and laser skin resurfacing. They are minimally invasive, effective and popular among the senior population. Cost for these procedures and the length of their effect vary.

Seniors may also want to investigate a class of chemical compounds called retinoids, Blacker said. "Deep creases and wrinkles will not improve, but using retinoids daily, or every other day, can help improve some of the cumulative changes associated with sun damage such as dullness, liver spots, roughness and dryness."

Alpha hydroxyl acids, or AHAs, are also helpful for dry and rough skin. Reasonably priced products of both compounds are available over the counter and by prescription.

Blacker also emphasized protection against too much sun. She advised wearing a hat when working or playing outside and sitting in the shade at outdoor restaurants or functions.

Seniors should practice a daily skin care regimen as well, said Parks.

"Use a sun protection factor [SPF] cream of 15 or higher on the body and SPF 30 on your face daily," he said.

Bathe regularly, "but if you tend toward getting rashes, you should limit soap," said Parks, who favors Cetaphil, a soap-free cleanser, or Dove soap. "Wash with tepid water -- too hot or too cold is drying -- and moisturize after your bath with a over-the-counter moisturizer.

"It's good to drink lot of water to keep the skin hydrated and take a multiple vitamin daily, too."

When should people see a dermatologist? "The skin is the body's largest organ, so it stands to reason there may be issues," Blacker said. You should be aware of a sore that doesn't heal within a few months, or a new growth -- anything that might be out of the ordinary.

Skin should be examined regularly, just like blood pressure, and the American Cancer Society stipulates that such an examination should be part of a regular annual physical, she added.

When it comes to reappraising the sun's role in our well being as well as our appearance, education is making inroads into the public consciousness. There are plenty of sources available to help determine if that birthmark is something to worry about.

Just don't be surprised if the parasol becomes a fashion statement once more.

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