Dry skin in winter

Family Health Diary

Dry skin – it’s a common winter thing
At this time of year, as winter kicks in, I frequently talk to people asking for help to relieve dry skin. They may describe their skin as dry, itchy and/or scaly. Some people with very dry skin comment it looks like a scaly fish!

Often the cause of this dry skin is the cold, winter weather and our efforts to keep warm. A consequence of turning heaters and/or the office air conditioning on and up, using electric blankets and wrapping ourselves in winter woollies, is that our skin dries out.

Heaters dry the air out and in turn this dries out your skin by removing the thin layer of oil that traps moisture in the skin. For many people this results in dry skin. For anyone with eczema or psoriasis, it can mean their condition ‘flares’ and their skin becomes itchy and painful.

Dry skin looks dull, feels rough and is less ‘pliable’ or flexible. When dryness is severe, the skin may become inflamed and cracked and this may mean it’s more prone to infection.

Although any part of the body can be dry, the shins are most commonly affected. Other common sites are the elbows, behind the knees and the face.

Whether you have eczema, psoriasis or just plain dry skin, you need to replace the moisture that has been sucked out of your skin. Applying moisturiser every day, at last once a day is the best way to do this.

For people with skin problems, being proactive and starting a daily moisturising regime as soon as winter starts is ideal.

The best time to apply a moisturiser is straight after your shower or bath. Pat your skin dry first and then apply a lotion, cream or oil. Applying a moisturiser straight after your shower or bath means you will trap some of the water still on your body and use it to hydrate your skin. If you towel dry your skin too much or if you wait too long after showering, the water that was absorbed into the top layers of skin during the shower or bath will be lost and you won’t get the same hydrating effect.

Which moisturiser should you use?
There’s a huge variety of products available today promising moisturising benefits. The terms emollient and moisturiser are often used interchangeably although strictly speaking an emollient describes a particular ingredient in a moisturiser.

The best moisturisers have a combination of ingredients that work together to replace moisture in the skin and are pH balanced. Products with a high pH or that are highly perfumed may contribute to dry skin. Moisturisers containing urea or lactic acid may suit some people as these ingredients help the skin hold water. However if you have eczema or cracked skin they might sting when applied so ask your pharmacist to recommend a product that suits your specific needs.

Strategies to combat dry skin in winter include:

  • Having shorter showers and using lukewarm, not hot, water.
  • Using moisture-rich pH neutral soaps made for sensitive skin.
  • After your shower or bath pat yourself dry gently to avoid traumatising or over-drying the skin.
  • Using a humidifer to increase moisture levels in your home
  • Drinking lots of water to help keep your skin moist from the inside.
  • For really dry skin e.g. on your lower legs, you might want to try an ‘occlusive’ wrap. This is when you apply a moisturiser to your legs and then wrap them in plastic wrap and keep the wrap on overnight. Wear socks to help keep the plastic wrap in place. In the morning remove the plastic and shower as usual and wash away the dead skin cells.

Written by: Jenny Cade

This blog pro­vides gen­eral infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion about med­i­cine, health and related sub­jects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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