It’s this time of year that I make my pilgrimage to upstate New York to visit my family. Since I live in sunny Florida I look forward to the beauty of the winter. Waking up, gazing out the window and seeing a powdery layer of fresh snow–radiantly white and soft as a blanket–is one of the greatest pleasures of winter. If it’s snowy outside it’s a great excuse to spend the day indoors with a book. If you’re the active type, it’s the perfect opportunity to head for the slopes or grab your snowshoes for a hike.
Unfortunately, we all know that along with the pleasures of winter come the shoveling and the travel delays. As a dermatologist, there’s another “winter worry” that I often hear from my patients who spend part of the year traveling to the north. They want to know how to avoid dry skin, the problem that so many of us fall victim to each year.
Why it Happens in Winter
According to T.S. Eliot, April is the cruelest month, but I’m betting he is one of the lucky few who didn’t battle with dry skin. Here’s how it works: Every winter, along with the drop in temperature, there is a major drop in humidity. Less moisture in the environment makes it more difficult for your skin to hold onto water. Keep in mind that dry skin is caused by a lack of water, not a lack of oil.
Even more damaging than low moisture in the air outside is the air you’re pumping into your home to heat it up. This dry heat sucks away any available moisture, wreaking havoc on your skin. That’s why both the person who stays cozy at home in winter suffers as much as the person outside hitting the slopes. Dry air is pretty tough to avoid unless you have a second home on a tropical island!
Moisture: How to Hold onto Every Drop
Remember that I said dryness is caused by a lack of water? Well, if you want to avoid dry skin, you have to figure out the best way to hold onto as much water as possible. First off, make it a habit to apply a body lotion after every shower. Have you been doing this, but still have dry skin? The key to sealing in water is applying lotion within three minutes of toweling off. The lotion acts as a barrier between the water in your skin and the air. No water equals dry skin.
Many of my patients say that their hands suffer most in the winter months. You shouldn’t give up hand washing, so be sure to keep hand lotion by the sink and apply it after each wash. The skin on the hands is very thin, so it is prone to drying out more quickly. Creams specially formulated for your hands provide extra protection for this sensitive area.
If you want to give your hands a little extra TLC, you can slather on a rich lotion or simple petroleum jelly and wear cotton gloves (available in drug stores) while you sleep to keep the lotion from evaporating. This works for the feet too, along with a pair of socks.
Another way to help your skin while you sleep is to put a humidifier by your bed. Be sure to close the bedroom door so the moisture stays inside. One humidifier can’t handle a whole house, especially when your heating unit is pumping, so you may want one in every room where you spend a lot of your time.
What to do for Winter Relief
If you spend an afternoon building snowmen with the kids, and find yourself with itchy, chapped, wind-burned skin, there is something you can do. Use very gentle cleansers for the face and the body, such as Dove or Neutrogena bath bars. The lye in regular soap strips away moisture. On your face and lips, try an ointment like Aquaphor or petroleum jelly. Extremely dry, red patches of skin may require the use of over-the-counter cortisone for a few days. If you have severe dermatitis, you may need to see your doctor for a prescription.
To calm itchy skin all over the body, an oatmeal bath is an excellent natural treatment. Sprinkle 2 cups of colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno is one brand available at drugstores) into a tub of lukewarm water. When you’re finished soaking, lightly pat your skin with a towel until it’s just damp. This is a great way to help the skin retain more of that soothing water. Follow up right away with body lotion.
If you follow these tips, winter may become a season you look forward to as much as I do!
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.
Photo Credit: beauty-personalhealthcare.blogspot.com