Diabetic Skin Care


Although diabetes is primarily known for its effect on blood sugar levels, the disease can affect all parts of the body, including the skin.
Although diabetes is primarily known for its effect on blood sugar levels, the disease can affect all parts of the body, including the skin.
©iStockphoto.com/Ryerson Clark

Most people know diabetes has something to do with blood sugar and might involve insulin shots, but there's really much more to it. In reality, while diabetes does indeed have to do with the amount of glucose in the blood, it can affect all parts of the body, including the skin [source: American Diabetes Association]. Fortunately, it's possible to stave off skin problems by keeping diabetes well under control and taking a few preventive measures.

Diabetes is a disease caused by too much glucose in the blood, but this buildup occurs in different ways and depends on the type of diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in children or young adults, the immune system starts fighting the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, a hormone that helps sugar get into the cells and turn into energy. Without enough insulin to get the sugar to the cells where it needs to be, sugar begins to accumulate in the bloodstream [source: Mayo Clinic].

In type 2 diabetes, which is the more common type, the body either doesn't properly use the insulin or simply doesn't produce enough insulin, causing the same sugar buildup that characterizes type 1 diabetes [source: American Diabetes Association]. That's why people with diabetes have high levels of blood sugar.

About one in three people who have diabetes have some type of skin disorder [source: American Diabetes Association]. Diabetes usually affects skin in two ways: through high blood sugar levels and through nerve damage caused by a number of different factors associated with diabetes [source: National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse]. These aspects of diabetes can cause dry skin or lead to more serious skin conditions. In addition, sometimes a skin condition serves as a warning sign of diabetes.

If you're wondering what having high blood sugar could possibly have to do with your skin, keep reading.

Diabetes' Effects on Skin

Since diabetes is a disease that has to do with the level of glucose in your blood, you might be wondering how that can affect your skin. Your skin's health is actually related in two ways to the amount of glucose you have in your blood.

First, when you have high levels of blood sugar -- or too much glucose in your bloodstream -- your body tries to remove the excess by excreting it in your urine. It takes water to make urine, which leads to a loss of moisture in your body. With this loss of fluid comes a loss of moisture in your skin, leaving it dry and easily prone to cracking. Cracks in your skin invite infection because they make it easier for germs to get in.

This is where the second effect of having high blood sugar comes in. Glucose in your bloodstream provides an environment for bacteria to multiply [source: Cleveland Clinic]. An increased number of pathogens can cause infections, or worsen them if they already exist. This can be especially problematic for areas of your skin that don't always have exposure to air, such as your feet.

In addition to water loss, high blood sugar also causes a reduced blood supply to the skin, which can result in a number of different disorders. For example, diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage, is a common condition associated with diabetes, and it can contribute to skin problems by making it difficult to feel pain and notice infections, especially in places such as your feet [source: Cleveland Clinic]. Nerve damage can also cause you to sweat less, meaning more dry skin.

However, if you have diabetes, dryness may be the least of your skin care worries. Continue to the next page to find out about some of the other skin conditions that go along with diabetes.

Diabetic Skin Conditions

Many of the skin conditions associated with diabetes can affect anyone, but there are a few that are typically are seen in people who do have diabetes. These conditions are usually associated with reduced blood supply to the skin.

Diabetic dermopathy appears most often as scaly patches on the legs, but no worries -- it's harmless [source: American Diabetes Association]. Similarly, necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD) is caused by changing blood flow. It, too, is relatively harmless, but its patchy spots are bigger and can become open sores, which will require treatment [source: American Diabetes Association].

Scleroderma diabeticorum is specific to people with type 2 diabetes, and it can be identified by thickened skin on the upper back and neck [source: WebMD]. It can be managed by controlling blood sugar levels. Vitiligo more often affects people with type 1 diabetes and is characterized by patches of skin that are discolored, usually on the chest and abdomen, but also on the mouth, nose and eyes [source: WebMD]. It's usually treated with topical steroids or pigment-altering techniques.

Other types of skin conditions associated with diabetes are bacterial or fungal infections. Because of the high amount of glucose in the bloodstream, people with diabetes are more prone to infection. While it's not pleasant to have these infections, the good news is they can be treated with prescription medications. However, if they are left untreated, they could lead to much more serious conditions [source: American Diabetes Association].

These just are a few of the skin conditions associated with diabetes, but rest assured, prevention goes a long way when it comes to diabetic skin conditions. Go on to the next page to find out some simple ways you can help keep your skin healthy if you have diabetes.

Diabetic Skin Care Tips

If you have diabetes, your skin care routine should extend from your head to your toes. Following a few simple steps can help minimize the effects of diabetes on your skin.

First, always make sure that your skin is clean and dry, especially in the areas where skin touches skin, such as your groin or between the toes. You can use a little bit of fragrance-free powder in these areas to help keep fungus from growing [source: American Diabetes Association]. You want your skin to be dry to the touch, but you still want it moisturized so that it doesn't crack and invite infections. Take short baths or showers, and use warm instead of hot water -- too much water can take away necessary, protective oils from your skin. Also, try using a humidifier during dry months.

If you do find yourself with dry skin, you can often avoid open sores if you resist the urge to scratch. If you have cuts or other open wounds, treat them right away with soap and water. Don't use an antiseptic, alcohol or iodine on your cuts, because they're too harsh for your skin [source: American Diabetes Association]. As always, see a doctor if any of your skin conditions get serious, and work to keep your diabetes itself under control.

Diabetes can be problematic for the skin on your feet, especially because you may not notice an infection there. To prevent serious problems, make sure you check your feet every day for sores, cuts or blisters, and monitor any issues if you do find them. Wash your feet daily and dry them well. You can use lotion on your feet, but don't put it between your toes, as it could allow fungus to grow. If you have corns or calluses, file them down gently after making sure they're not infected.

Having a whole skin care routine to worry about might seem overwhelming when you're already dealing with a disease such as diabetes, but taking good care of your skin will pay off in the long run. For more information about skin conditions associated with diabetes and how to treat them, follow the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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  • American Diabetes Association. "Skin Complications." (Accessed Sept. 18, 2009)http://www.diabetes.org/type-1-diabetes/skin-complications.jsp
  • CDC's Diabetes Program. "National Diabetes Fact Sheet 2007." July 23, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 18, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/estimates07.htm
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  • National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. "Diabetic Neuropathies: The Nerve Damage of Diabetes." May 2008. (Accessed Sept. 18, 2009)http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/DM/pubs/neuropathies/
  • National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. "Prevent diabetes problems: Keep your feet and skin healthy." February 2009. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/DM/pubs/complications_feet/
  • WebMD. "Skin Problems in Diabetes." March 8, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 18, 2009)http://diabetes.webmd.com/guide/skin-problems