Don't curse cold for chapped skin; simplify, moisturize for protection

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

For many people, soft skin becomes a casualty of the winter weather.

But the cold temperatures and wet weather outside aren't to blame for dry, cracked skin. The culprit is actually the air indoors.

"Winter is tough because even though it's raining and wet, we have heaters running and that really zaps the moisture out of the skin," said Dr. Benjamin Vazquez, a dermatologist at The Vancouver Clinic. "It's really easy for skin to dry out."

The heated air indoors has a lower relative humidity than the air outside. The drier air sucks the moisture out of the skin, said Dr. Craig Hersh, a dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente. That leaves the skin prone to drying out, itching and cracking.

And taking a long, hot shower doesn't help to replace the moisture in skin. In fact, it actually dries the skin out faster, he said.

"If you wanted to get grease out of a frying pan, you soak it in hot water," Hersh said. "So you're doing the same thing with your skin, but you want that oil. You're washing all that protective oil down the drain."

But there are things people can do to help soothe itchy skin and replenish the moisture in dry skin.

When showering, Vazquez recommends using a mild, nonfragrant soap.

"Plainer is better," he said.

He often recommends Dove bar soap. Antibacterial and deodorant soaps can zap more moisture out of the skin, Vazquez said. And fragrant soaps can irritate already dry skin, he said.

Unless you've been sweating heavily at the gym or got dirty working outside, Vazquez said you don't really need to apply soap to all parts of the body. Instead, lather up your armpits, groin, hair and face and leave the rest of your skin soap-free, he said.

"Less soap is more sometimes," Vazquez said.

After taking a shower, Vazquez and Hersh advise patients to moisturize while the skin is still damp.

Vazquez recommends a plain, heavy and nonfragrant lotion such as Vanicream. Shea butter lotions are usually pretty effective, but Vazquez warns people to watch for added fragrances. For those who want an all-natural moisturizer, coconut oil is a good product, he said.

Heads-up about hands

The best moisturizer is plain Vaseline, Vazquez said, but it's also a little messier than lotions. When applied to damp skin, though, Vaseline dries pretty well and isn't slimy or greasy, he said.

Fragrance-free bath oils may also help, Vazquez said, if they're used in warm — not hot — water.

Another way to rehydrate is to soak in comfortably warm — again, not hot — water for about 15 minutes, until your fingertips start to wrinkle. After patting dry, immediately slather the skin with lotion, Hersh said.

"Sort of like sealing a deck, but in reverse," he said.

Dry hands require a little more vigilance, Vazquez said.

"Because we wash our hands so much, you've really got to be much more aggressive about the dry skin care," he said.

Vazquez recommends keeping a pocket-size bottle of moisturizer nearby and applying it throughout the day, especially for those who work in professions that require lots of hand-washing. Before going to bed at night, you can apply a layer of Vaseline to your hands and then cover them with gloves or white socks. The treatment will rehydrate dry skin while you sleep, he said.

Removing other things that can cause inflammation, such as fabric softeners and dryer sheets, and switching to a fragrance-free laundry detergent during the winter months may help with dry skin. And for some people, using a humidifier at home may also help, the dermatologists said.

Drinking extra water or taking vitamins won't help replenish moisture in the skin. Neither will taking more, or fewer, showers, according to dermatologists.

The best way to combat the dry skin that comes with winter weather is simply to moisturize.

"Keeping things very, very simple is often the best way," Vazquez said.