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Ditch the itch

Take steps to prevent dry skin

Photo: kate_sept2004/iStockphoto

Many people think dry skin is a wintertime issue. And for a lot of them, it is. Cold outdoor temperatures and low humidity can contribute to skin that feels tight, rough and itchy. But dry skin can be caused by other things, too.

The National Institutes of Health says healthy skin is important because “it holds body fluids in, preventing dehydration, and keeps harmful microbes out – without it, we would get infections.”

Here are some things to know about dry skin – and how you can help prevent it.

Who gets dry skin?

Although anyone can develop dry skin, the Mayo Clinic says certain factors may increase your risk:

  • Being 40 and older.
  • Living in a dry, cold or low-humidity climate.
  • Having a job that requires frequent handwashing or immersing hands in water (for example, nurses and salon workers).
  • Swimming in chlorinated pools.

In addition to age and environmental factors, dehydration, diabetes and psoriasis (an autoimmune disease) can trigger dry skin. Atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, is another cause. Eczema leads to cracking, redness and inflammation of the skin. It’s most common in early childhood but can surface later in life.

Dermatologist Jacqueline Youtsos, owner of ReNu Medical & Spa in Pittsburg, KS, said dry patches of skin often result from eczema. Typically, they’re found at the front of the elbow and back of the knee and “will flare in the wintertime and as the seasons change because of the allergy component,” Youtsos said.

“Eczema, allergies and asthma – those three go together,” she added. “So, you don’t have to have all three, but typically, people have eczema and allergies, or eczema and asthma.”

Prevention and treatment of dry skin

So what are some simple ways to ward off dry skin?

Keep it cool: Use lukewarm water – not hot – when showering or bathing. “The hotter water feels better, but the hotter water actually strips some moisture from your skin and dries it out even more,” Youtsos said.

Five to seven minutes is an optimal shower or bath length, she added. “The longer you’re in the water, the worse it is. So, I always tell a person to set a timer right on the other side of their bathroom.”

Moisturize: Finding the moisturizer that works best for your skin takes some trial and error, according to Dr. Bob Brodell, professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The right moisturizer, Brodell said, is the one that keeps your skin feeling moist – not dry, scaly, flaky or itchy.

“I encourage patients to try a bunch of them,” he said. “I’d use it after the bath or shower and at bedtime. A couple times a day, all over. Anybody whose skin is dry should use a little moisturizing lotion every day as a preventive measure.”

Some of Brodell’s patients have found items to help their dry skin in the medicine cabinet or kitchen cupboard. It depends on your symptoms. If you have eczema, Brodell recommends applying a thin coating of petroleum jelly after showering to help restore some of your skins’ oils that washed away. “The downside to that is it’s greasy,” he said. “But if you’re really dry, you don’t mind the greasiness, and many of my patients are willing to do that.”

Similarly, vegetable shortening may help seal in moisture after showering. “But the vast majority of people want to use products that are more elegant than that, and there are a number of excellent ones out there,” Brodell said.

Youtsos recommends thicker moisturizing creams packaged in jars or squeeze tubes instead of pumps. She and Brodell also advise using moisturizers that contain ceramides – molecules that hold skin cells together and retain moisture.

Skip the deodorant soap: Use mild, nonirritating soaps in place of harsh, drying soaps. “If you use harsh soaps, that’s harder on your skin,” Brodell said.

Increase the humidity: Using a humidifier in your bedroom at night can boost and maintain higher humidity levels, Brodell said.

Stay hydrated: “Really, to be proactive, hydration is key,” Youtsos said. “Keep drinking your water.”

Next steps

If the home remedies suggested above aren’t enough, experts say you should apply an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream as the next step.

When is it time to see a doctor? The Mayo Clinic recommends calling your physician if:

  • Your skin doesn’t improve despite your best efforts.
  • Dry skin is accompanied by redness.
  • Dryness and itching interfere with sleep.
  • Scratching leads to open sores or infections.
  • Large areas of scaling or peeling skin form.

“There are some conditions where no amount of moisturizer or hydrocortisone will make that person better until we’ve made the right diagnosis and then direct our treatment,” Brodell said.

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