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By: Kenneth Ripp, M.D.
This is a difficult time of year for the body’s largest organ – the skin. Humidity levels drop outdoors as well as in, where forced air furnaces decrease the moisture in many homes. The cold, harsh winds of winter can further act to make skin rough and chapped. Dry skin can be irritating and itchy. If untreated, it can cause flare-ups of more serious conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
There are a number of skin conditions that can cause winter woes. When skin becomes red and inflamed, a diagnosis of dermatitis may be made. There are a number of different types of dermatitis. All can cause flaky, dry, itchy skin.
One of the most common is known as atopic dermatitis, or eczema. Eczema often runs in families and causes chronic, excessively dry itchy skin. It most often appears on the face, wrists, elbows, and knees. While eczema can be worsened by dry skin, most often it is caused by allergies to foods, airborne irritants, or irritants in common substances (such as latex and detergents.)
Psoriasis is another chronic skin condition in which skin cells grow too quickly, resulting in thick, white, or red patches of skin. Areas most often affected include the knees, elbows, scalp, hands, feet, and lower back. Like dermatitis, there are several different types of psoriasis. Nearly 90 percent of people with psoriasis have a type called plaque psoriasis. Like eczema, many doctors believe that psoriasis is inherited. Other factors that increase flare-ups include: cold weather, emotional or physical stress, infection, skin injury, and certain medications.
Not everyone has a skin condition like eczema, however it is important for everyone to take good care of this very important organ. The skin protects the body from the environment, and provides oxygen and nutrients. It is our body’s first line of defense against the elements around us. Keeping the skin healthy helps keep us healthy. One way to do this is to ward off dry skin.
Dry skin can cause discomfort as well as pain. There are environmental factors – such as humidity – that affect skin’s dryness. In addition, some people have a genetic or inherited tendency toward dry skin. Elderly people also tend to have more problems with dry skin, due in most part to the natural changes that occur with age.
The main cause of dry skin can be summed up in one word: water. Dry skin is lacking water. Therefore, the best ways to treat dry skin involve replenishing it with moisture.
A lukewarm (not hot) bath can help replenish dry skin. Use only moisturizing soap, and use it sparingly. Soak until the palms of your hands are wrinkled. When you get out of the bath, gently pat your skin with a soft towel. Leaving some water on your skin helps it to retain moisture. Immediately apply a generous amount of moisturizing cream (creams are better than lotions) to seal in the moisture.
Shave using a lotion versus shaving foam. The foam dries out the skin.
You can’t do much about the air outside, but you can make the air inside your home more skin-friendly by getting a humidifier. Humidifiers add moisture to the air, which is just what your dry skin needs.
Hydrate from the inside out. Drink plenty of fluids – especially water. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. They work to dehydrate your body. Essential fatty acids – found in foods like nuts, soybeans, salmon, tuna, shrimp, polyunsaturated safflower and corn oils also help to moisturize the skin.
If your lips become chapped, resist the temptation to lick them. This will only worsen the condition. Instead apply a lip balm or petroleum jelly.
Hands and feet often take a beating in the winter. Petroleum jelly can be used as an overnight treatment. Use a generous amount on hands and feet, then put on socks and gloves before turning in for the night. In the morning your hands and feel will feel softer and more hydrated.
Dandruff often becomes a bigger problem during the winter months. Dandruff is simply skin cells that are shed off of the scalp. Typically, dandruff poses no health risk, however it can be an embarrassing, itchy nuisance. Usually, an over-the-counter dandruff shampoo will be sufficient to keep your dandruff in check.
Sun block isn’t just for the summer months. Bright sunshine reflecting off white snow can be stronger than you think. Always use a sun block with an SPF of 30 or greater on your face and other parts of your body that are exposed to the air.
Skin problems don’t have to put a damper on your schedule this winter. There are a number of things you can do to keep your skin healthy throughout the season by hydrating your body on the inside as well as the outside. If you’re bothered by excessively dry skin, or feel that you may have one of the skin conditions described above, contact your health care professional to schedule an appointment.
Dr. Ripp is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.