Staying dry isn’t always the best solution

It’s getting cold out there, and we know what that means: Dress in layers, dig into closets and drawers for our gloves and hats, and welcome back chapped lips, dry, itchy skin, hang nails, rashes and a worsening of skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Beyond plunging thermometers, the main culprit we’re fighting is lack of moisture. In late fall and winter, the humidity in the outside air drops, and — thanks to indoor heating — we’re dried out by warm air in our house, office, school or workplace.

During flu and cold season, we’re also washing our hands more often than ever, which saps the natural oils in our skin, leaving hands, feet and other body parts dehydrated until they crack, peel and bleed. The skin barrier is a mix of proteins, lipids and oils. It protects our skin, and how good a job it does is largely genetic, but also a measure of environmental conditions. If we have a weak barrier, we’re more prone to symptoms of sensitive skin such as itching, inflammation and eczema. Our hands are also more likely to become very dry in winter if they’re constantly exposed to cold air, water, extreme heat or other environmental factors.

November is National Healthy Skin Month. Dry skin occurs when skin doesn’t retain sufficient moisture — for example, because of frequent bathing, use of harsh soaps, aging, or certain medical conditions. Wintertime poses a special problem because humidity is low both outdoors and indoors, and the water content of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) tends to reflect the level of humidity around it. Fortunately, there are many simple and inexpensive things we can do to relieve winter dry skin, also known as winter itch.

Skin moisturizers, which rehydrate the epidermis and seal in the moisture, are the first step in combating dry skin. In general, the thicker and greasier a moisturizer, the more effective it will be. Some of the most effective (and least expensive) are petroleum jelly and moisturizing oils (such as mineral oil), which prevent water loss without clogging pores. Because they contain no water, they’re best used while the skin is still damp from bathing, to seal in the moisture. Other moisturizers contain water as well as oil, in varying proportions. These are less greasy and may be more cosmetically appealing than petroleum jelly or oils.

Dry skin becomes much more common with age — at least 75 percent of people over age 64 have dry skin. Often it’s the cumulative effect of sun exposure; sun damage results in thinner skin that doesn’t retain moisture. The production of natural oils in the skin also slows with age; in women, this may be partly a result of the postmenopausal drop in hormones that stimulate oil and sweat glands. The most vulnerable areas are those that have fewer sebaceous (or oil) glands, such as the arms, legs, hands, and middle of the upper back.

Here are some ways to combat dry skin that are effective if practiced consistently:

  • Use a humidifier in the cold-weather months. Set it to around 60 percent, a level that should be sufficient to replenish the top layer of the epidermis.
  • Limit yourself to one 5- to 10-minute bath or shower daily. Use lukewarm water rather than hot water, which can wash away natural oils.
  • Minimize the use of soaps — replace them with super-fatted, fragrance-free soaps, whether bar or liquid, for cleansing, and moisturizing preparations such as Dove, Olay, and Basis. Also consider soap-free cleansers like Cetaphil, Oilatum-AD, and Aquanil.
  • To reduce the risk of trauma to the skin, avoid bath sponges, scrub brushes, and washcloths.
  • Apply moisturizer immediately after bathing or after washing hands. This helps plug the spaces between our skin cells and seal in moisture while our skin is still damp.
  • Try not to scratch! Most of the time, a moisturizer can control the itch. Also use a cold pack or compress to relieve itchy spots.
  • Use sunscreen in the winter as well as in the summer to prevent photo-aging.
  • When shaving, use a shaving cream or gel and leave it on the skin for several minutes before starting.
  • Wear gloves and hats when you venture outdoors, and latex or rubber gloves when you wash dishes and clothes.
  • Stay hydrated – no matter the season, you need to drink plenty of water, and be careful about caffeine and alcohol products, which dry you out.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!