Skin becomes thinner as a person ages, or as a result of sun damage, medication, or lifestyle factors. It is not usually reversible, but there are some ways to protect skin and prevent complications.

Thin skin on the hands is relatively common. However, as a person ages, they may also develop thin, papery skin on their arms and legs. Thin skin bruises more easily.

In this article, we look at the causes of thin skin, possible treatments and preventions, and when to see a doctor.

What is thin skin?

Senior person with thin skin on their hands
As a person ages, they may develop thin, papery skin.

Skin is naturally thinner on some parts of the body. The skin on the eyelids is only 0.5 millimeters (mm) thick, while the skin on the heels can be up to 4 mm thick.

The skin is made up of three layers, each with a different role:

  • The hypodermis is the innermost layer, made up of tissue, fat, and sweat glands.
  • The dermis is the next layer, which contains the nerves and blood supply.
  • The epidermis is the outermost layer of skin, which is a barrier against dirt and bacteria.

Thin skin means that the epidermis is not as thick as it should be. The hypodermis may also have less fat, which results in this layer being thinner, too.

By itself, thinner skin should not cause any medical problems. However, a person may find that their skin gets damaged or bruises more easily.

Symptoms of thin skin

If a person has thin skin, it can look more transparent and they might be able to see veins, bones, or tendons more clearly.

Thin skin can be easily damaged. A person may notice that their skin bruises or tears after minor injuries.

A loss of fat from the hypodermis causes the skin to look less plump or full, which can make the skin appear thinner.

Causes

Woman sunbathing on the beach which may increase thin skin
Sunlight may cause the skin to thin over time.

Causes of thinning of the skin include:

  • Aging is the most common cause of thin skin. Thin skin is a natural part of getting older, alongside furrows and wrinkles, less skin elasticity, and skin that is dry or easily damaged.
  • Sunlight plays a significant role in thinning the skin over time. UVA and UVB rays can kill or damage skin cells.
  • Smoking and drinking alcohol both speed up skin aging and can contribute to thinning of the skin over time.
  • Steroid creams can make the cells in the epidermis smaller. The medication may also affect the tissue connecting skin cells. This can leave the skin looking wrinkled or loose.
  • Other medications may cause thinning of the skin as a side effect. This may happen with topical steroids, which people apply directly to their skin. This medication is usually in the form of a cream or ointment and is used to treat skin conditions, such as eczema.

Topical steroids are only likely to cause thinning if a person uses them for an extended period. It is essential to follow instructions on how to use the medication.

The skin should return to its usual thickness once a person has stopped using the medication. However, this may take several weeks, as skin cells take time to renew.

Treatment

It is not possible to reverse thinning of the skin. However, moisturizing the skin can make it more flexible and less likely to break.

Anything that makes the skin red or sore is likely to be damaging it. A person with thin skin might need to protect it from damage. For example, they should avoid contact with harsh chemicals.

A person with thin skin may find their skin bruises or damages more easily. Protecting the skin by wearing long sleeves, and long skirts or trousers can help.

Using creams that contain vitamin A, also known as retinol or retinoids, may help to prevent skin from thinning further. Retinol creams are available in drugstores or online as cosmetic products.

Research published in 2018 suggests that in some cases retinol may help to normalize skin thickness. However, it should be used with care and is not suitable for all skin types.

While there is no conclusive evidence that using collagen boosters improves skin health or thickens the skin, some people find them beneficial.

Eating a balanced diet can help support overall health. Include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and proteins.

Vitamin E, found in foods such as almonds and avocados, can also support skin health. The fats in these foods may help to keep the skin supple.

Drinking enough water helps to keep the skin hydrated. Dry skin can be irritated or damaged more easily and is often less flexible.

Prevention

moisturizing cream being used from a glass pot
Age-related thinning may be prevented by moisturizing the skin regularly.

It is not possible to avoid all signs of aging. Fine lines or wrinkles, and skin that becomes thinner and drier occur naturally as a person ages. However, it might be possible to lessen or slow down some of the visible signs of aging.

It might be possible to prevent some age-related thinning of the skin by protecting the skin from harmful UV rays, moisturizing skin regularly, and not smoking.

UV light from the sun is one of the major causes of skin aging. Protect the skin from the sun by:

  • wearing factor SPF 30 sunscreen or higher that protects from both UVA and UVB rays
  • sitting in the shade or spending time indoors during the hottest part of the day
  • wearing long sleeves, and a long skirt or trousers
  • choosing a hat that will shade the neck and face

Moisturizing the skin can help to prevent dryness and damage. This is because it stops water from leaving the skin. Hydrated skin is more elastic and healthier.

Alcohol also dries out the skin, so avoid drinking to excess. Drinking a glass of water in between alcoholic drinks can help a person to stay hydrated.

When to see a doctor

There is usually no need to see a doctor for thin skin that is caused by aging and is not presenting any health problems. If a person finds that they are bruising or damaging their skin often, they may wish to seek medical advice.

Some medications can cause thin skin. A doctor can advise on whether to stop using the medicine and offer possible alternatives.

If thinning skin has no apparent cause, getting medical advice can help. It might be that lifestyle factors, such as exposure to sunlight or smoking, have caused the skin to thin.

Specific treatment is not available for thin skin, so prevention is the best option. Protecting the skin from sunlight and keeping the skin hydrated may help to prevent further thinning of the skin.