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Do you experience dry, cracking skin in the winter? On your hands, feet, elbows, knees, even your face? It can be very bothersome, and sometimes even painful. Scratching only makes things worse. Prevention is the key to dry skin. So, what are the causes of dry skin and what are some secrets to combating dry skin? Keep reading!


What Is Dry Skin?


Dry skin is a very common skin problem and is often worse during the winter when environmental humidity is low (i.e., “winter itch”). It can occur at all ages and in people with or without other skin problems.


Everyone is familiar to some degree with the appearance of dry skin. The normally fine lines in the skin become more visible, the skin feels rough and appears dull and flaky. In more advanced cases, fish net-like cracks resembling the fine fracture lines of cracked porcelain can occur. Dry skin occurs most commonly on the arms and legs, but can also affect the trunk of the body. Dermatologists often call dry skin “xerosis” or “asteatosis”.


Dry skin very commonly produces itching, which can be severe and interfere with sleep and other daily activities. Repeated rubbing and scratching can produce areas of thickened, rough skin (lichenification). Dry, thickened skin can crack, especially in areas subject to chronic trauma (e.g., hands and feet), causing painful cracks in the skin (fissures). Dry skin and scratching may result in dermatitis when the skin becomes red (inflamed) in addition to dry and scaly. Round, scaly, itchy, red patches scattered over the legs, arms and trunk (nummular eczema) may also appear. The appearance of yellow crusts or pus in these areas indicates that a bacterial infection is developing. This would require specific antibiotic therapy from your health care provider.


Causes of Dry Skin:


Think of your skin as a multi-layer cake. Dry skin results when there is not enough water in the stratum corneum (a layer of the cake) for it to function properly. One way this can happen is when protective oils in the stratum corneum are lost and the water that is normally present in the skin is allowed to escape. Too much soapy water, exposure to harsh chemicals, the normal aging process and certain types of skin diseases are some of the causes of decreased amounts of protective skin oils. As the stratum corneum dries out it shrinks and, as it shrinks, small cracks can occur. This exposes the underlying living cells to irritating substances and germs in the environment.


Treatments of Dry Skin:


1) Water is Key – I always talk about the importance of water. Your skin thrives on water and how hydrated your body is. Ever noticed when someone is dehydrated their lips become dry, and may even crack. This is basically happening slowly over your entire body. Without water, your skin begins to shrink – causing wrinkles and cracks. Your skin is your first level of defense against bacterias. Remember: Drink 1/2 your body weight in ounces a day – if you weigh 120 lbs. – then drink 60 oz. of water a day.


2)Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize – Find an “ointment” moisturizer that’s oil-based, rather than water-based, as the oil will create a protective layer on the skin that retains more moisture than a cream or lotion. (Hint: Many lotions labeled as “night creams” are oil-based.)


But choose your oils with care because not all oils are appropriate for the face. Instead, look for “nonclogging” oils, like avocado oil, mineral oil, primrose oil, or almond oil. Shea oil — or butter — is controversial, because it can clog facial pores.


You can also look for lotions containing “humectants,” a class of substances (including glycerin, sorbitol, and alpha-hydroxy acids) that attract moisture to your skin.


3) Sunscreen Isn’t Just For Summer – No, it’s not! Winter sun — combined with snow glare — can still damage your skin and cause it to dry out. Try applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen to your face and your hands (if they’re exposed) about 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply frequently if you stay outside a long time. Also, sunscreen always has zinc oxide in it – Zinc oxide is thick and soothing for dry skin.


4) Humidified Air: Central heating systems (as well as space heaters) blast hot dry air throughout our homes and offices (This is often times why you experience more nose bleeds in the winter). Humidifiers get more moisture in the air, which helps prevent your skin from drying out. Place several small humidifiers throughout your home; they help disperse the moisture more evenly.


5) Give Yourself A Hand: The skin on your hands is thinner than on most parts of the body and has fewer oil glands. That means it’s harder to keep your hands moist, especially in cold, dry weather. This can lead to itchiness and cracking. Wear gloves when you go outside; if you need to wear wool to keep your hands warm, slip on a thin cotton glove first, to avoid any irritation the wool might cause. Petroleum jelly is wonderful to use at night on your hands. Add a pair of socks to your hands before bed, and you will be surprised how soft your hands are in the morning. P.S. – Your spouse may think you are nuts, but just imagine how great your hands will feel! 😉


6) Don’t Forget Your Feet: Yes, those minty foot lotions are lovely in the hot summer months, but during the winter, your feet need stronger stuff. Try finding lotions that contain petroleum jelly or glycerin instead. And use exfoliants to get the dead skin off periodically; that helps any moisturizers you use to sink in faster and deeper. Same as your hands – Petroleum jelly and socks are fabulous for soft, smooth feet. – CAUTION: If you go without socks, your feet WILL BE SLICK – you could fall!!


7) Exfoliation is Key: You know how much I LOVE home remedies. This is one of my most favorite: Homemade Sugars Scrubs. These can be made very quickly, and for very little money. Here is the recipe:


* 1 c sugar (white or Brown Sugar – or a mixture of both) – this acts as your exfoliator


* 1/2 c Olive Oil – this acts as your moisturizer


* 1/2 tsp. of any flavoring you like – I love vanilla or almond flavoring (but you can use your favorite smell) – this acts the fragrance


Mix these items in an air tight jar or plastic container. Use in the shower or bath, on your elbows, knees, legs, feet. Be careful, your feet might be slick, and you could fall – use with caution. Sugar scrubs make GREAT holiday gifts. You will want to share this one. Guess what I will be making tonight!!


8) Beware of Super Hot Baths: Sure, soaking in a burning-hot bath feels great after frolicking out in the cold. But the intense heat of a hot shower or bath actually breaks down the lipid barriers in the skin, which can lead to a loss of moisture. A lukewarm bath with oatmeal or baking soda can help relieve skin that is so dry it has become itchy.


9) If All Else Fails: See Your Health Care Provider or Dermatologist – There are some skin disorders that cause dry, cracking skin. You may need more intensive treatment. Don’t be afraid to talk to your health care provider about this or any other issue you encounter.


Dry skin is definitely bothersome, not necessarily life-threatening. Take time to take care of yourself. Your skin…. will thank you!


Do you have any other remedies for dry skin? I would love to hear about them. Leave a comment here.