What Are the Causes of Thinning Skin?

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Loss of skin barrier protection means more frequent injuries.
Loss of skin barrier protection means more frequent injuries. (Image: photodeti/iStock/Getty Images)

Sagging, discoloration and wrinkling aren't the only skin changes you can look forward to wrestling with as you age. Progressive thinning of the epidermis typically happens to almost everyone. If your skin looks like crepe paper, tears or bruises easily, and is less sensitive to stimuli than when you were younger, you've already lost your subcutaneous fat layer. But age isn't the only condition that causes thinning skin -- extreme weight loss, medication overuse, sun exposure, genetics and a variety of health problems also make the barrier between your body and the outside world a little less effective.

Age Old Condition

Older people have the same number of cell layers as the young, but the epidermis layer on top has usually thinned considerably. In women, hormonal changes from menopause are the culprits. With the loss of estrogen, capillary blood flow lessens and fewer nutrients travel to the skin, resulting in delayed cell regeneration. In men, loss of testosterone results in elastosis, or the weakening collagen and elastin, which makes the epidermis' fatty layer grow thin. Genetic tendencies toward thinning skin typically show up with age, and anyone who spent too much time outdoors in their youth may experience accelerated thinning from UV light exposure.

Thin at Birth

Skin thinning can show up at any age, even in infants. Often, other skin conditions and nutritional deficiencies will exacerbate a tendency toward skin thinning, but some endocrine disorders and rare pediatric disorders will cause it directly. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, for example, results in pale, unusually soft and stretchy skin that is thin all over the body in a uniform fashion. Bruising and varicose veins are common. Other endocrine disorders like Cushing disease cause thin skin in limited areas, such as the arms and hands only.

Steroid Atrophy

Many people experience thinning skin from overuse of topical or injectable corticosteroids, which weaken blood vessels and cause slow cell turnover in the fat and skin layers. These medications treat a variety of other skin disorders, such as psoriasis lesions, and thinning skin is a side effect. Once present, the change is irreversible, but some measures can reduce the look of thinning skin. Dermatologists may order patients to back off on the corticosteroids or dilute the concentration, or they may provide vascular and pigment laser treatments.

Protect Your Protection

There is no cure for thinning skin, no matter the cause, but you can keep your skin in the best condition possible. Cover up regularly -- wear long sleeves and pants, hats and other clothing to prevent your skin from snagging on other items and tearing. If you work outdoors, wear two layers of clothing. Wrap your most often-injured areas with several layers of gauze or bandages. Avoid the sun if possible, and reapply an SPF of at least 15 once every two hours when you do go out. Moisturize your skin frequently, and help increase collagen production with retinol, trentinoin and peptide topical formulas.

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