Itching, scaling, cracking, flaking, and chapping are the chief signs—and consequences—of dry skin. Dry skin is an annoying problem for elderly people, who have lost much of the natural moisture and oil from their skin. For people of all ages, dryness is aggravated by winter weather, when outdoor chill and particularly indoor heat become the enemies of the epidermis. Common sites of dry skin include the lower legs, thighs, and upper arms. Cold weather can also cause nails to break and cuticles to roughen.
Symptoms of Dry Skin
- Skin that appears dry, scaly, brittle, rough, shrunken or dehydrated
- Skin tightness
- Itching (moderate to severe cases)
- Redness, fine lines or cracks in the skin
What Causes Dry Skin?
Throughout much of life, secretions from oil and sweat glands help to moisten the skin and prevent dryness. As you age, however, natural secretions decrease and the skin gradually dries out. Also contributing to the problem is the fact that skin sags more (because the fat just under the skin diminishes) and it loses elasticity because of changes in connective tissue. In addition, cold weather, dry air, harsh skin-care products, and too-frequent bathing contribute to the overall drying effect.
What If You Do Nothing?
In most cases dry skin will eventually clear on its own once the humidity increases. However, the unsightly appearance and accompanying itching may be too much to bear until that time finally arrives.
Home Remedies for Dry Skin
There are effective and inexpensive ways to take care of dry skin.
- Take short baths or showers and use lukewarm water. Cut bathing back to two or three times a week during the cold winter months. Sponge bathe the rest of the time. Overbathing in a tub may cause damage to skin cell membranes, possibly by removing essential body oils.
- If you take tub baths, add bath oil. This will help soothe the skin. Cornstarch, instant oatmeal, or colloidal (finely ground) oatmeal are good alternatives.
- Don’t use deodorant soaps. Choose a milder soap and use as little of it as you can.
- Pat yourself dry instead of rubbing. Gentle patting is less irritating than vigorous rubbing.
- Moisturize. Apply a moisturizing oil or lotion, especially after a bath or shower. Avoid products that contain rubbing alcohol.
- Use a humidifier to add moister to the air inside your home. Hot and cold air can make your skin dry. Central heating systems and air conditioners increase the risk for dry skin.
- Make sure all clothing that touches your skin is well rinsed when washed. Try switching to a detergent that contains no perfume. Discontinue fabric softeners, bleaches, and other wash ingredients. (You may be able to return to your regular washing routine later.)
- Wear cotton. It’s easier on your skin compared with wool or synthetics, whose rough texture tends to catch and move the skin scales, leading to a vicious cycle of itching and scratching. Permanent press and wrinkle-resistant fabrics may have formaldehyde or other irritating chemicals in their finish. Wash new clothing and towels before using them.
- Try not to scratch. You may irritate the skin further. If symptoms persist, apply a hydrocortisone cream to your skin. Don’t use alcohol-based products, which are drying, to combat itching.
- Keep the indoor temperature at 68°F in the winter. This saves fuel as well as skin by increasing the relative humidity. If this isn’t possible, use a humidifier to raise humidity and slow dehydration.
- Avoid toasting yourself in front of a fire or woodstove. Wood heat—because it is so hot if you’re near enough to get really warm—is extremely drying.
- Stay out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Too much sun causes dryness, and it is the leading cause of skin cancer. Use facial moisturizers that contain sunblocking agents.
- Use a moisturizer after bathing. Moisturizing ingredients trap moisture and change the surface of the skin.
- Avoid air conditioning whenever possible. Going from a humid environment into an airconditioned room where the relative humidity is low causes water to be lost from your skin.
- Use liquid soap whenever possible. Liquid soaps are milder than most soap bars.
How Moisturizers Can Help
Moisturizers work just on the skin’s surface to relieve the flaking, itching, and tightness that characterize dry skin. Despite the claims in advertisements, these creams and lotions—even if they contain vitamin E, hormones, and other “skin foods”—can’t penetrate and “nourish” the deeper layers of the skin, slow the aging process, or reduce wrinkling. Still, moisturizers can help relieve the symptoms of dry skin.
There are two types of moisturizers:
Emollients, also called occlusives (such as petroleum jelly, lanolin, and mineral oil). These work very much like your skin’s natural oils; they form an oily barrier on the skin’s surface that seals in moisture to some extent and thus blocks its evaporation.
Humectants (such as glycerin, sorbitol, lactic acid, and urea). These attract and hold water on your skin’s surface.
Which moisturizer will work best for you? This depends on the moisturizer’s ingredients and how chapped, dry, or sensitive your skin is. The simpler the moisturizer, the better. The more ingredients in a moisturizer—perfumes, colors, thickeners, emulsifiers—the greater the chance of a sensitivity reaction, especially if you have delicate skin. If you are prone to acne, overuse of any moisturizer may cause your skin to break out.
The best advice: buy by price. In a comparison of more than 30 moisturizers, Consumer Reports found that the least expensive (Vaseline Intensive Care Dry Skin formula) worked best. When you find a product you like, you'll find that it works on your face, hands, and body. You don’t need different products for various body parts.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if you develop a severe rash accompanied by itching or if you are bothered by persistent itching.
What Your Doctor Will Do
After a careful examination to rule out other disorders, your physician may prescribe a powerful corticosteroid cream to diminish the itching and lubricate the skin.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media