Harvard Health | Banishing Dry Winter Skin

Banishing dry winter skin

POSTED MARCH 14, 2019,

Do you have dry, itchy winter skin? You’re not alone. During the winter months, many of my patients come into clinic asking about the right cream to use to cure their dry skin. But dry skin care is about so much more than just moisturizers.

Here are some dermatologist-recommended tips for preventing and relieving dry skin:

  • Harsh soaps are not your friend. Many people love the feeling of being “squeaky-clean” after using harsh soaps in the shower. But these soaps strip your skin of essential lipids (fats) that keep the skin moisturized. Instead, try a gentle, fragrance-free cleanser and limit its use to cleaning the underarms and groin, or skin that is visibly soiled.
  • Warm showers, not hot. I look forward to a steaming-hot shower at the end of a cold winter day as much as the next person. But hot water and long showers can irritate and dry out the skin. So can saunas, hot tubs, and Jacuzzis. Especially when your skin is dry, try turning the temperature knob down slightly so that the water is warm rather than hot, and limit showering to once a day for no more than 10 minutes.
  • When you moisturize matters. The best time to moisturize is when your skin is still damp, such as right after a shower. Pat your skin dry gently, then slather up with a good moisturizer from head to toe. Not only is it more effective, it may also feel less greasy on your skin as the moisturizer traps existing moisture on your skin.
  • The thicker the better. Ointments or creams are much more effective at moisturizing than lotions. Ointments are typically petroleum or lanolin based, and creams tend to be thicker than lotions. Additional moisturizing ingredients to look for include shea butter, olive oil, and jojoba oil. If your skin is flaky, look for exfoliating ingredients such as lactic acid or urea, but be careful using these ingredients if you have sensitive skin.
  • Go gentle all around. Use skincare products that are gentle and unscented, including deodorants and hypoallergenic laundry detergent. Gentle or hypoallergenic products minimize the chance of skin irritation; avoiding irritation can help maintain the healthy skin barrier needed to retain water from the inside.
  • Consider a humidifier. During the dry winter months, using a humidifier to keep the humidity above 30% can make a big difference for your skin.
  • Nature versus nurture. Some people have a genetic mutation in the fillagrin gene. This gene is very important in the formation of the outer layer of the skin, which forms a barrier that helps the skin retain moisture. This mutation predisposes the affected individuals to eczema and persistently dry skin. It is especially important for people with this mutation to follow all the tips above to prevent and manage dry skin.

If your skin does not improve after making these changes, you may need to see a dermatologist. Sometimes, severe dry skin can be relieved by a prescription ointment or cream. Dry skin can also indicate a more serious skin condition; a dermatologist can evaluate your skin and decide on the regimen that can help you the most.


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