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Dry Skin: A Winter Woe

Dry Skin: A Winter Woe

Dry skin, also known as xerosis, is a very common winter skin problem. It can occur at all ages and in people with or without other skin problems. The outermost layer of our skin, the stratum corneum, is made up of natural oils, dead skin cells, and water. This protective barrier keeps water inside our bodies, preventing it from escaping into the air, and keeps our skin soft and smooth. Dry skin occurs when there is not enough water in our skin’s outermost layer.

Causes of dry skin include:

·         Climate, such as cold, dry winter air or a hot, dry desert environment

·         Indoor air from heating or cooling systems

·         Bathing too often or too long; using hot water

·         Some soaps and detergents

·         Skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis

·         Diseases, such as diabetes

·         Aging, during which skin gets thinner and produces less natural oil

·         Washing your hands often

Symptoms of dry skin can appear anywhere on the body:

·         Skin that is dry, scaly, itchy, and red. This can present in small, circular patches or cover large areas of skin

·         Fine or deep cracks on the skin, some of which may bleed

·         Rough, flaking, or peeling skin

·         Skin that feels rough

·         Skin tightness, especially after bathing

·         Gray, ashy skin in people with dark skin

·         Chapped or cracked lips

Treating Dry Skin:

An important aspect of treatment is to determine why your skin is dry. Consider the causes listed above. Water alone, especially hot water, can actually worsen the problem of dry skin by removing the normal, protective skin oils. Hot, soapy water can remove the skin’s natural oils to the greatest degree.


·         Take a short bath or shower, no more than 10 minutes, and only once in a 24 hour period

·         Use warm rather than hot water

·         Mild soap should be minimally used (unscented and designed for sensitive skin)

·         After showering, quickly and gently pat the skin partially dry with a towel. Do not rub

·         Apply a moisturizer to seal the water in the skin before it evaporates

·         Bath oil can be directly rubbed into the skin after showering or bathing, but should not be added to the water

Moisturizers: Should be reapplied liberally during the day and evening when possible, especially to those areas prone to dryness:

·         Ointment: These have the greatest ability to trap moisture in the skin, but often have a greasy consistency. Examples include petroleum jelly, Aquaphor, and Crisco vegetable shortening. The key to using an ointment is to apply small amounts and rub it in well

·         Oil: These are less greasy but still effective. Examples include baby oil, mineral oil, vegetable oil, and bath oil

·         Cream: These are usually white and disappear when rubbed into the skin without leaving a greasy feel

·         Lotion: These are suspensions of oily chemicals in alcohol and water

Some moisturizers contain chemicals that can cause skin irritation or allergic reactions. If one brand of moisturizer gives you problems, try another with a different set of ingredients.

Over-The-Counter Steroid Cream: A Cautionary Word

·         Of all the available steroid creams, hydrocortisone 1% is the least potent, and is the only one sold over-the-counter. It can be helpful in treating the itchy, dry patches caused by dry skin

·         Always follow the directions listed on the label. Apply a small amount and rub in thoroughly. Be sure to wash your hands afterwards

·         Once you see improvement, switch back to your moisturizer

·         It should never be used on a daily. Use only when needed

·         Caution should always be exercised when used on children. Consult with your healthcare provider before applying

·         Do not use if infection is present

·         Do not apply to your face or genital area

·         If you have any questions about using it, consult with your healthcare provider

Complications of dry skin:

·         Dry skin very commonly produces itching, which can be severe and interfere with sleep and other daily activities

·         Repeated rubbing and scratching can produce areas of thickened, rough skin

·         Dry, thickened skin can crack, which can bleed and be painful

·         Dry skin and scratching may result in a dermatitis, when the skin becomes red in addition to dry and scaly

·         Yellow crusts or pus in these areas indicates that a bacterial infection is developing. When dry skin cracks, germs can get in through the skin. Once inside, germs can cause an infection. Red, sore spots on the skin may be an early sign of an infection

Prevention of dry skin:

·         Increase the humidity level in the air. Consider adding a humidifier to the central heating system of your home. A portable humidifier can also be helpful

·         Do not expose your skin to water more often than needed

·         Use lukewarm bath or shower water. Afterward, pat the skin dry with the towel instead of rubbing. Do not use hot water

·         Use a gentle cleanser. Soaps can strip oils from the skin. Stop using deodorant bars of soap, antibacterial soaps, perfumed soaps, and skin care products containing alcohol, like hand sanitizers. Look for either a mild, fragrance-free soap or a soap that moisturizes

·         Limit time in the bathtub or shower. A 5- to 10 minute bath or shower adds moisture to the skin. Avoid scrubbing your skin. Do not bathe more often than once a day

·         Moisturize right after baths and showers. To lock in moisture from a bath or shower, apply a moisturizer while the skin is still damp

·         It is best to shave right after bathing, when hairs are soft. To lessen the irritating effects of shaving your face or legs, use a shaving cream or gel. Leave the product on your skin about 3 minutes before starting to shave. Shave in the direction that the hair grows

·         Change razor blades after 5 to 7 shaves. A dull blade can aggravate dry skin

·         Apply cool cloths to itchy dry skin

·         Soothe chapped lips

·         Cover up outdoors in winter. In the cold, wear a scarf and gloves to help prevent chapped lips and hands

·         Be good to your face. If you have very dry skin, cleanse your face just once a day, at night. In the morning, rinse your face with cool water

·         Avoid skin care products and soaps that contain alcohol, fragrances, dyes, or other chemicals

·         Drink plenty of water

When to contact your healthcare provider:

·         You feel itchy without a visible rash

·         Dryness and itching that keeps you from sleeping

·         You have open cuts or sores from scratching

·         Self-care tips do not relieve your dryness and itching

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