Dry Spell

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A little prevention goes a long way in curing parched winter skin Winter can be a tough time of year, as you attempt to manage holiday stress, entertain visitors and fight off the seasonal cold or flu. The good news is that you can remove skin troubles from your list of winter worries. Once you realize there are things you can do to improve and even rid yourself of common complaints such as dry skin, you will look and feel better.

Naturally, you may wonder why skin issues develop in the winter. “In New Orleans, our skin is used to the humidity that we experience during the warmer weather, and when cold fronts come in, the humidity outside becomes lowered, which is drying to the skin,” says Dr. Ronald Davis, a professor of dermatology at Tulane Medical Center. “Because of the cold weather, we have heaters in our homes and they further reduce the humidity inside.”

Our skin is covered with a layer of oil or fatty substances that create a natural barrier, says Davis. Without it, our skin would dry out like a prune and we’d develop wrinkles. “It is important that we protect and replenish that layer of fatty oils that cover our skin to help prevent water from evaporating,” says Davis. Those who don’t take good care of their skin are more prone to drying.

But at some point, everyone experiences dry skin, and when it isn’t treated it can become irritated, itchy and sometimes red. Thankfully, there are several tricks to healing it. “People can use mild, soap-free cleansers and hydrate their skin with simple moisturizers. Another secret is to use an emollient ointment like Aquaphor or Vaseline on top of your normal moisturizer at night,” says Dr. Sarah Jackson, a dermatologist at Audubon Dermatology.

Your moisturizer should be oil-based, and the best time to apply it is after a bath or shower because your skin will be damp. Choose this important product carefully. “Lotions have a lot of water in them and tend to be runny, so they are not good moisturizers,” says Davis. Follow a simple rule of thumb: “If you have something that comes out of a pump bottle, pump it into the skin and turn your hand upside down. If it immediately runs off, that is probably not the kind you need if you have dry skin.” If your hands are dry, wearing gloves will protect your skin from the cold and can decrease the flare-up of dry skin.

But parched skin can result from being indoors as well. Jackson and another dermatologist at Audubon Dermatology, Dr. Deirdre Hooper, suggest getting a humidifier to put moisture in the air. If you don’t want to spend a lot on a system, you can find an inexpensive but still effective one at your local drugstore. Davis says, “You can get a cool mist, which is an ultrasonic humidifier, or you can get one that can be built in to attach to the central heat.” It will put a gallon of water in your bedroom or work area, which can be a big help. “A lot of the newer thermostats show the humidity in the house, and it is amazing how low it gets in the winter,” he says, emphasizing his point.

“If you are in an office building, especially a higher office building that is not humidified, it can be drying,” says Davis. The humidity inside an airplane, at an altitude of 30,000 feet, for instance, is extremely low as well. Jackson and Hooper also encourage wearing layers, which can be removed to prevent overheating, and loose-fitting cotton fabrics next to your skin. “Extremely tight clothing or coarse fabrics are going to physically irritate the skin, which can contribute to the problem,” says Davis.

Take precautions and remember that activities you enjoy may not be good for your skin. “Everyone takes long, hot showers or baths when they are cold. It feels good, but the hot water helps strip the oil from the skin,” says Davis. Multiple showers per day aren’t really necessary in the winter, so you may want to cut back on them during that time of the year. “A big culprit is something called ph, which is the acid balance of the skin,” he says. Most deodorants and soaps, even ones like Ivory, have a high ph, which means they are very alkaline. “The lathering that gives the skin a squeaky-clean feel is actually stripping all the oil off the skin.” This may be all right in the summer, when it is hot and humid, especially if you have a tendency toward oily skin, but that’s not the case during the cold months. “In the winter, it is a disaster because you take the oil away with harsh soaps and the skin cannot replenish it,” says Davis. Some soaps, like Caress and Dove, are thought to have a more neutral ph and may be gentler to the skin.

Be aware of what you are putting on your body as well as in your body. “If you take certain medications like blood pressure medications, which are diuretics, or fluid pills, they can further decrease the water content of the skin, because they help to draw water out of the cells of the body,” says Davis. Beauty products can also cause a reaction. “Products that normally would not bother us, especially fragrances that are in skin care products, become more of a problem and cause allergies and rashes when the skin is dry,” says Davis. This is why experts reiterate choosing a moisturizer that is fragrance-free or hypoallergenic.

It’s important to recognize that some factors may be out of your control, however. Heredity can come into play, and some skin conditions or medical conditions such as diabetes, psoriasis, thyroid disease, kidney disease, certain cancers and leukemia can cause people to be more prone to dry skin. “Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition where people have inflammation in their skin that can affect their joints,” says Jackson. To identify that disorder, Jackson says patients should look for “red, scaly patches on their skin.” Eczema, a dry, scaly rash that is more common in people who suffer from allergies and dry skin, can also worsen in the winter. “Moisturize heavily, and you may need a topical anti-inflammatory cream,” suggests Jackson.

Age is also a defining factor. As we get older, our skin tends to produce less oil. “If the skin gets dry, it gets fine cracks and is more prone to infection, so we have to watch for that,” says Davis. Though hygiene is essential, frequent hand washing, especially for those in the health care or food industry, can lead to what is called hand eczema.

The key to eliminating dry skin is to take a preventive approach. If you have parched, red, itchy, flaky or cracked skin, don’t be afraid to consult a board-certified dermatologist. “If you let it go, it will become a vicious cycle and will get worse,” says Davis. “It is good to come in at the first stages when you are having problems.”