In my last post I covered winter itch, a common skin condition from September through May. However, you don’t need winter itch to have dry winter skin. Skin can feel uncomfortable even when it doesn’t itch. I am going to explain why skin dries out in winter and then give you some suggestions to help keep your skin moist during the winter months.
Skin dries out more in winter because cold air holds very little moisture. In fact, the colder the air the less moisture it holds. Indoor heating compounds the problem. When you take cold, dry air and heat it up the air becomes even drier. This is exactly what most home heaters do. This creates an indoor environment where the relative humidity is very low. When the relative humidity is below 40 percent, the air will suck the water out of your skin like a sponge.
Contrast this with summertime. Warm air holds more moisture, which is why hot, humid days are common in the summer. During winter your home and workplace don’t have a lot of water for the heated air to hold.
Forced hot air heat is the worst for your skin. Just like winter itch, dry skin is more common at the beginning of autumn because that’s when the relative humidity is lower and people begin to use their heaters. The dry air inside and outdoors pulls water from the skin, especially the outermost layer. This layer become rough and develops invisible scaling and cracking. Without treatment this initial dryness tends to progress to visible cracking. According to one theory, the sharp edges of the flaky, cracked skin stimulate nerves near the skin surface, which then leads to an itchy sensation.
Here are three things you can do to manage dry winter skin:
- Moisturize the air in your home. Humidifiers are made specifically for conditioning the air. In addition to a humidifier, you can place tubs of water around baseboards, radiators, or hot air registers.
- Use a mild soap. The soaps I recommended for winter itch are also good for routine dry winter skin. Soaps made by Neutrogena®, Aveeno®, Clinique®, and Almay® are good. Dove®, Lever 2000®, and Cetaphil® cleanser are also good options. During a shower your skin loses essential oils so take care not to overuse soap or take lengthy showers. Try to keep your shower or bath to less than 8 or 10 minutes long. There are some newer moisturizers that are designed to replace the skin’s moisture-holding chemicals and to enhance the barrier function of the outermost layer of the skin. Some of these products contain ceramides, a moisture-hugging molecule. CeraVe™ is one of the new prescription-strength moisturizers that contain ceramides. Lubriderm® and Curél® are among the many over-the-counter options. For severely dry skin there are several prescription-strength moisturizers.
- Moisturize twice a day with lotion. After your shower, pat (don’t rub) your skin dry just enough to leave it moist. Immediately apply your lotion to trap the moisture from the shower in your skin. I’m often asked which lotion I prefer. I always respond that the answer is based on individual taste and experience. If you’re happy with your lotion there is no reason to change. Twice a day is the ideal number of times you should apply your lotion. If possible, take a quick rinse before applying moisturizer. If one of the twice-a-day applications doesn’t follow bathing, that’s okay though. It’s better to moisturize unsoaked skin than not at all.
Legs, arms, and hands are particularly prone to drying, but any part of your body can be dry – even if it’s not directly exposed to air. The hands are a special case; many people with cracked, dry skin of the hands just simply wash their hands way too much. Some areas may not show much in the way of visible signs of dryness while other parts of your body feel itchier or drier. The trick is to catch dry skin symptoms early and start moisturizing right away. Sometimes skin becomes so dry and irritated that it becomes pink and inflamed. An over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone lotion or cream can be helpful. Sometimes it may take a prescription-strength steroid cream to reduce the inflammation and break the cycle. If you ever develop persistent skin irritation, it may be wise to consult your dermatologist. Without treatment skin can get so unsupple it develops deep cracks, especially in the heels. This will be the focus of my next post.