Protect Yourself from the Winter Dry Skin "Itch"

01/04/2013

Not long ago I was speaking with a nurse who asked me: “What can I do about my winter itch?

After we talked a bit, I found out that she lived in an apartment with forced hot air heat, had no humidifier, and often took long, hot showers. In other words: the perfect ingredients for dry skin.

Dry Winter Outdoor Air + Dry Indoor Heat = Dry Skin

Winter is the season for dry skin and chapped lips because lower air temperatures and low humidity result in drier air. And, the dryness is made worse by forced, indoor hot-air heating in homes and offices. This double whammy of dry air causes skin to lose more moisture and (for many people) become itchy. This is especially true for our "age-gifted" older citizens. That's because the natural oil layer in our skin that protects it from losing moisture is depleted as we age. And, if someone with dry skin takes frequent baths or showers (sorry kids, you still have to get washed), a further loss of this protective oil layer results, and the cycle of winter-dry skin continues.

Flaky Skin Means Dry Skin, Right?

The most common cause of itchiness (without a rash) is dry skin. In fact, the most common symptom of dry skin is that itchy feeling, not the dry-skin flakes. Just because your skin is flaky, doesn't mean it's dry. A common example is seborrhea, a skin condition where the skin is flaky and oily, not dry.

Stop the Itch!

If your skin is itchy for no obvious reason, try using a moisturizer before visiting your doctor. Moisturizers add a protective oil layer to your skin and decrease the amount of moisture lost to dry air. You don't need to use fancy or expensive moisturizer. Sometimes simpler is better because "special" added ingredients may not result in any benefit to your skin, even though the hype of the product may sound great!

The Moist Skin Recipe

Some moisturizers feel greasier than others because they contain a lot of oil based ingredients. These types stay on longer and are better for really dry skin, but tend to feel heavy and uncomfortable.

The water-based moisturizers feel lighter on the skin but don't stay on as long, nor do they provide the same degree of skin protection as the oilier type. Sometimes your doctor will have to prescribe a medication to help heal dry skin, but for the common, easier-to-help causes of the "winter itch", here are some suggestions to stop that scratching:

  • Lotions are good for most parts of your body, but creams and ointments are best for the really rough areas such as elbows, knees, hands and feet
  • For "normal" dry skin, look for ingredients such as dimethicone or cyclomethicone. If really dry and cracked, look for petrolatum-based products
  • If your skin is prone to acne and "breakouts," use water based moisturizing products that say "non-comedogenic" in order to avoid clogging of your pores
  • For our seniors, look for moisturizers that hydrate, have some petrolatum in the ingredient list, and contain alpha hydroxy acid, as this last one helps to fight wrinkles and minimizes skin flaking
  • For those with sensitive skin, look for ingredients that sooth such as aloe and chamomile. Avoid products containing parabens, lanolin (a wool derivative) and fragrances
  • Try not to use bath oils because they don't stay on the skin very long and make the tub slippery and more dangerous.
  • Apply a moisturizer after you take a bath or shower. This will help keep your skin hydrated. And, it's often best to take a bath or shower before you go to bed. If you shower before going out in the morning, cold dry air tends to cause the moisture on your skin to evaporate, setting up a cycle of drier skin.
  • Drink plenty of water (as long as you have no fluid restrictions), not soda or caffeinated beverages
  • Avoid long showers or baths, use warm water, not hot (causes your pores to open and you may lose more moisture to dry air), and try not to use scented soaps or detergents
  • Don't wear rough wool or other scratchy materials against your skin
  • Wear gloves when washing dishes, or if your hands are exposed to harsh chemicals
  • Consider getting a humidifier during the heating season, or use the time-proven method of keeping pots filled with water near the heating vents to increase the moisture in the air
  • Don't lick chapped lips because this will lead to even more fluid loss and more lip cracking. Best to use a lip balm moisturizer with a sun protection factor 

If these measures don't stop the itch in a week or two, or if you notice any red rashes or patches, schedule a visit with your family doctor.


Dr. Rob believes in preventative and integrative approaches to medicine. He specializes in family medicine as well as children's health and wellness.
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