Fighting Dry Skin in Winter
Plagued by dry, itchy skin? It’s a common problem, but here is what you can do to fight it.
As we age and our skin produces less and less oil, many of us suffer from flaky skin and bothersome itching. Scratching dry skin doesn’t help—in fact, it can lead to serious complications. Here are some reasons itchy skin might be affecting you and what you can do to ease the irritation.
What causes dry skin in winter?
As many as three in four people over age 65 suffer from dry, flaky skin. The problem is widespread because its roots are partly biological. As we age, our skin naturally grows thinner and has fewer blood vessels and nerve endings.
Collagen and elastin, the fibers that make up your skin’s structure, also diminish, decreasing your skin’s elasticity and ability to retain moisture.
Then as we move into the winter months, these symptoms can be exacerbated by the season.
“If your skin is already susceptible to dryness and you add cold weather to the equation, you have a recipe for an even bigger problem,” says Alisha Landes, regional director of healthcare operations at Independent Healthcare Properties & Morning Pointe Senior Living. “The low humidity that comes with dropping temperatures makes it even harder for your skin to hold in moisture.”
Other cold-weather related reasons for dry skin? According to Jennifer Willingham, LPN and resident care director at The Bridge at Ooltewah, winter weather means cranking up the heat, which also saps moisture from the air and your skin. Winter also calls for layers of sometimes scratchy sweaters, and these don’t help the cause either.
Sun Exposure = Dry Skin?
Skin naturally becomes drier as we age, but a history of sun exposure will cause it to dry out even faster. Why? Over time, the sun’s UV rays break down your skin’s collagen and elastin. When this happens, it’s less able to retain moisture.
Dry Skin Solutions
What should you look for when choosing skin-friendly products? Here are a few tips:
- Dye- and fragrance-free detergent. Look for detergents and fabric softeners free of perfumes and dyes, which can irritate sensitive skin.
- Oil- and petroleum-based moisturizers. While water-based lotions work for normal skin, you need to bring in the heavy armor to combat your dry skin. Oil-based skin creams work well for moderately dry skin, while severely dry patches might need petroleum-based moisturizers.
- Cotton blend fabrics. Avoid scratchy fabrics such as wool and synthetics. Cotton and cotton-poly blend fabrics are less likely to cause irritation.
- Humidifiers. Single-room humidifiers run for as low as $15, while whole-home humidifying systems can cost thousands. Cool mist humidifiers are safer for small children, but hot steam humidifies the air just as effectively.
What's the big deal?
If left unchecked, dryness can even erode the skin’s effectiveness as a barrier. Scaly patches, mild to intense itching, and chapped or cracked hands are all symptoms of winter itch.
“As skin dryness worsens, your skin may develop cracks and fissures,” Landes explains. “These can allow germs to get in.”
If these cracks and fissures are neglected – or scratched – the problem may become even more severe.
“Tampered with, these wounds can deepen and worsen into an infection,” Willingham says.
How can I beat the itch?
What are the most effective ways to beat the winter itch? The key is to moisturize and protect your skin.
- Lather up with a gentle soap. “Harsh soaps interfere with the skin’s natural protective barrier,” says Dr. Mary Bean, family medicine physician with Alexian Brothers PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly). “Instead of using just any bar soap, look for gentler brands like Dove, Oil of Olay, or Cetaphil.”
- Layer on the sunscreen. Daily use of sunscreen protects your skin from premature aging, and consequently, skin dryness. For best results, apply a layer of SPF 30 sunblock lotion to your skin every day of the year.
- Limit the frequency, length, and heat of your baths. Use lukewarm water, not hot water, as higher temperatures can dry out your skin more. Also, don’t bathe too often. “For older adults, bathing every other day or even just three days a week can prevent loss of natural oils,” Dr. Bean suggests. “I also recommend applying a hydrating lotion after a bath while the skin is still moist.”
- Hydrate your body, not just your skin. Drink more fluids to keep dry skin at bay. While topical skin moisturizers are important, it’s also vital to hydrate your body from within.
- Say “no” to scratchy sweaters. Abrasive fabric, such as wool, is a potential irritant for dry skin, especially during the winter. If you want the warmth of wool without the irritation, arm yourself with soft cotton leggings, undershirts, and gloves.
- Add some moisture. “Use a humidifier at home, particularly in the winter when the heat is turned on and humidity inside the home is lower,” Dr. Bean says.
Know your pH. Alkaline soaps and detergents, which have a pH level higher than 7, can strip the skin of its natural oils and leave it feeling taut and dry. pH levels for some common bar soaps include:
- 6: Dove
- 7: Caress, Oil of Olay
- 9: Lava, Lever 2000, Neutrogena
- 10: Dial, Irish Spring, Ivory, Jergens, Palmolive, Tom’s of Maine, Zest
If you’ve tried the tips above to no avail, your itchy skin keeps you awake at night, or you have open cuts from scratching, it might be time to check in with your general practitioner or dermatologist. Your irritated skin could be a symptom of a more serious condition such as hypothyroidism, eczema, psoriasis, or allergies.
Depending on the diagnosis, your doctor may suggest a variety of approaches to combat the problem, including prescription and over-the-counter moisturizers. “We often suggest using over-the-counter creams with lactic acid or urea (like Lac-Hydrin or Eucerin) immediately after bathing,” Dr. Bean says. “If the skin has dried to the point where it’s irritated, inflamed, and itching, a mild cortisone cream can also be helpful.”