Thin Skin Overview

Skin Problems Image Gallery Increased age, sun exposure, and genetics can all contribute to the thinning of the skin, increasing susceptibility to injury. See more pictures of skin problems.
Skin Problems Image Gallery Increased age, sun exposure, and genetics can all contribute to the thinning of the skin, increasing susceptibility to injury. See more pictures of skin problems. Malchrowicz

Wrinkles happen. Over time your skin changes. Soft and smooth baby skin turns to sometimes acne-riddled, adolescent skin. As you mature, your skin loses elasticity, which inevitably leads to skin that begins to sag and stretch. Moreover, some areas of your skin -- like the skin around your eyes -- are thinner and more susceptible to crow's feet and other fine lines. Thin skin is one of the most prominent effects of time's passage and is to blame for many of the telltale signs of aging.

To understand thin skin, you must understand the composition of skin. Like the rest of your body, your skin is made up of tissue, groups of cells bound together to serve a particular purpose. Skin tissue is composed of three layers: the epidermis, dermis and the hypodermis [source: Merck Source]. The epidermis, or outer layer, is made mostly of dead skin cells that contain keratin, the protein that makes your skin durable and protects the underlying layers. The dermis, or middle layer, contains collagen and fibers that strengthen your skin and give it flexibility. The hypodermis, or inner layer, is composed of fatty tissue that connects your skin to the underlying tissue and cushions the body from daily bumps and bangs [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].


When you notice dry, flaking skin, you may be observing a reduction in keratin in the epidermis. Thinning skin may be a sign that collagen in the dermis is breaking down. If your skin begins sagging or drooping, then you might have lost some of the fatty tissue that pads the hypodermis.

Read on to learn more about the causes of thin skin as well as ways to slow and reduce thinning.

Causes of Thin Skin

Thin skin does not just affect the elderly; it can affect anyone at any time for a multitude of reasons. Knowing the causes of thin skin can help you determine how to mitigate the thinning process.

As skin ages, skin cells in the dermal layer don't divide as quickly as they once did [source: WebMD]. This reduced cell division means that the skin rejuvenates less. Your skin loses some of its hardiness and begins to thin. At the same time, fatty cells in the hypodermal layer begin to degrade, causing your skin to hang more freely. Without that thick protective layer of cushioning, a slight bump against a table can rupture blood vessels, which is why thinner skin bruises more easily [source: Medline Plus]. Genetic factors also contribute to the development of thin skin. If your parents had thin skin, then you are more likely to have it [source: Mayo Clinic].


Although you cannot change the genes that determine how thick your skin is or how well the collagen and fibers hold up in the dermis, you can control other causes of skin thinning. For example, you can limit your amount of sun exposure. Overexposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays breaks down and damages collagen in the dermal layer. When this happens, your skin is less likely to rebound from inevitable daily stretching and twisting. Avoiding or reducing your exposure to the sun's UV rays can reduce collagen loss [source: National Institute on Aging].

Now that you understand the causes of thin skin, you can more effectively combat the thinning process. Read on to learn how to better protect your skin.

Thin Skin Treatment

Every day people put their skin through a tough routine of washing, drying and, in some cases, makeup application. These seemingly harmless activities can quickly dry out the skin. Dry skin is more susceptible not only to cracking, peeling and developing infections, but also to thinning. Applying a daily moisturizer will help keep moisture locked in your skin and reduce the loss of your skin's natural oils.

Overexposure to harmful rays from the sun can cause the most damage to sensitive skin tissues. UV rays can speed the loss of collagen and elastin fibers as well as encourage the growth of age spots and other skin conditions. To slow down skin damage that can lead to skin thinning, you should limit your exposure to UV radiation. When spending time outdoors, especially during the afternoon hours when the sun's rays are most direct and intense, you should apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. You should reapply sunscreen every two hours or right after getting out of the water or drying off with a towel to ensure continued protection. If you wear makeup, you may also want to look into purchasing cosmetics that contain sunscreen; however, keep in mind that such cosmetics do not provide adequate sun protection when used alone.


You've learned that thin skin bruises more easily, but it also tears easily and is more susceptible to other injuries and infections. If you have thin skin, in addition to moisturizers and sunscreen, you may want to protect your skin in other ways. For example, if you are pruning your rose bushes outside, consider wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when possible to reduce the likelihood of sunburn, scrapes from thorns, or other skin injuries.

Above all, the greatest prevention against premature thinning of the skin is to keep your skin healthy. A diet rich in nutrients along with sufficient fluid intake will do more to maintain your skin than any amount of moisturizer. Dehydration, or an insufficient supply of body fluids, can lead to many types of skin damage [source: Medline Plus].

You have learned about the causes of thin skin as well as about treatments and protective measures. Now learn more about the ways in which thinning will affect your skin as you get older.

Thin Skin in the Elderly

As people age, the skin becomes more prone to thinning as well as other skin conditions, such as liver spots, bruising and slow-healing cuts. Aging is a fact of life; understanding how thin skin relates to other skin conditions prevalent among the elderly can help to slow the effects of time and relieve certain conditions when they do occur.

Thin skin is more vulnerable to the growth of lentigines, commonly known as liver spots or age spots. These flat spots of brown and black pigmentation result from sun exposure over the course of a lifetime, and most often develop on the hands, arms, face, neck and back [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. These spots are usually harmless, but you should have a doctor evaluate any skin discoloration to ensure you are not developing a form of skin cancer called melanoma.


Varicose veins appear more prominently among elderly individuals and others with thin skin. Varicose veins, blue lines under the skin, occur when blood vessels swell and the valves that carry blood to the heart wear down. If blood collects in the veins, they increase in size and become more visible under the skin. While most varicose veins are not life threatening, they can be painful [source: Medline Plus]. When this occurs, you should consult a physician regarding treatments to alleviate the pain or procedures to remove the veins.

As with varicose veins, spider veins are also more visible in individuals with thin skin. Spider veins occur when blood vessels swell, but they generally are smaller than varicose veins and may appear blue, purple, or red-tinged. They most often appear on the legs and face, but they can develop in other places as well [source: WebMD].

Although you cannot stop aging, you can learn ways to take care of your skin as you age and help avoid the complications discussed above. As previously noted, the best defense against the damaging effects of time is to maintain healthy skin. Healthful food, adequate hydration and general physical fitness are the best ways to ensure overall health.

For more information, follow the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Be Sun SmartSM." 2009. (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Skin (anatomy)." (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • Gibson, Lawrence E. "Thin Skin: What Causes It?" September 26, 2007. (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Dry skin." December 16, 2008. (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Prednisone and other corticosteroids: Balance the risks and benefits." June 7, 2008. (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • Medline Plus. "Aging Changes in Skin." August 10, 2008. (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • Medline Plus. "Varicose Veins." (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • Merck Source. "Skin (Integumentary System)." 2001. (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • National Institute on Aging. "Chapter 3: Biochemistry and Aging." January 31, 2008. (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • WebMD. "Skin Problems: Wrinkles." 2009. (Accessed 8/7/09)
  • WebMD. "Varicose Veins and Spider Veins." 2009. (Accessed 8/7/09)