Winter Weather Brings Dry, Itchy Skin

Dr. Rallie McAllister

As teenagers, most of us would have gladly traded our oily, acne-prone complexions for a good case of dry skin.

Now that we’re older, we know that dry skin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It looks great on lizards, but most humans find parched, flaky skin unattractive and even uncomfortable.

Some skin flaking and shedding is perfectly normal. Every 30 days or so, an entirely new outer layer of skin, called the epidermis, is formed, pushing older, drier cells to the surface to be shed.

Most adults slough off a few billion worn-out skin cells daily. By the time we’re 70 years old, we’ll have shed roughly 40 pounds of dead skin.

Young skin secretes plenty of fluids and fats that keep it moist and supple — but after the oil surplus of our teens, production begins to drop off sharply. With age, oil-producing glands shrink and fizzle out, leaving most older adults with a major oil shortage and some seriously dry skin.

Without its protective layer of oil, there’s no barrier to prevent the skin’s moisture from evaporating into the atmosphere. Normal skin is approximately 60 percent water, an ingredient that is vital to good health.

When skin loses moisture, its outermost layer stiffens and begins to itch. Itching inevitably leads to scratching, creating an endless itch-scratch-itch cycle and making skin vulnerable to infection by invading bacteria.

Dry skin can be a problem year-round, but it tends to worsen significantly during the winter months. Low humidity in the cold outdoor air is part of the problem.

Warm, dry air from indoor heating systems in homes and offices pulls even more moisture from the skin. Using a humidifier can help replace moisture in the air and protect skin from drying out.

If your skin isn’t as soft and supple as you’d like, it might be a good idea to take fewer baths and showers. Washing with lukewarm water instead of hot water removes less of your skin’s natural oils.

While you’re at it, go easy on the lather. Soap is an effective cleaning agent because it dissolves grease and oily substances.

By removing the oil from your skin, soap dramatically accelerates moisture loss. The soap you use should be mild, and you should avoid using those with perfumes and deodorants, since they tend to be harsher and more drying than milder varieties.

As soon as you step out of the shower, you’ll want to replace some of the oil that the soap and water removed. Rather than toweling off completely, simply blot away the excess water.

Moisturizers work best when applied to damp skin, since this allows them to trap water on body surfaces. Even the best products don’t work well on bone-dry skin.

With an endless selection of creams and lotions on the market, choosing the best one can be a challenge. The good news is you don’t have to spend a fortune to get the desired results.

When it comes to hydrating dry skin, thicker, oiler creams are better than light, oil-free lotions. Applying a thin layer of inexpensive mineral oil to damp skin may work best of all.

What you put in your body is just as important as what you put on it. Drinking plenty of water each day helps keep skin well hydrated from the inside out.

Since skin is ultimately made of nutrients obtained from the foods that you eat, you’ll want to make sure your diet provides ample amounts of the necessary building blocks. Essential fatty acids are important components of moist, healthy skin.

Because these fats cannot be manufactured by the human body, they must be supplied by the diet. Good sources of essential fatty acids include salmon, mackerel and other types of fatty fish, as well as nuts, seeds and avocados.

If your diet is lacking in these foods, you can always take a nutritional supplement. Fish oil, flaxseed oil and borage seed oil are rich in essential fatty acids.

Taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement may also be a good idea. Adequate intakes of vitamin C and the minerals copper and zinc support the health of collagen, a structural component of skin that helps it retain moisture and elasticity.

Treating dry, itchy skin takes a little time and effort, especially during the winter months. But the more time you invest in caring for your skin, the less time you’ll spend scratching.

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