- Renae Wortz NP-C
As February comes to an end it always seems as though Spring should be just around the corner. Unfortunately, if you live in a northern climate like I do, winter is sure to endure for weeks if not months longer. While wintertime is certainly beautiful in its own way, the dry, cold air is not always kind to our skin. Dry skin can be a simple cosmetic annoyance for some people that is easily remedied with a little self-care. For others, dry skin can cause significant discomfort, poor self-image and serious monetary expense!
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As the largest organ and one of our body’s most important barriers against the environment, it is vital to care for our skin and keep it healthy. Here are some ways to revive your winter skin...from the inside out!
The air we breathe, things we touch and activities we engage in, all affect the overall health and functioning of our bodies...including the health of our skin. When it comes to dry skin, environmental factors are often overlooked, but are still important! Here are a few ways to create a healthy environment for your skin.
Use a humidifier - Using a humidifier can be beneficial in many ways throughout the winter months and helping to combat dry skin is one of them! Depending on where you live, the humidity in the air is generally lower in the winter and higher during summer months. Furnace-heated indoor air can be especially dry, sapping moisture from your skin and contributing to skin itching and flaking. Install a humidifier onto your furnace or place a portable humidifier in rooms where you spend a lot of time (the bedroom for example); aim for 30 - 50% humidity levels in your home (humidity can be measured with a simple, inexpensive tool called a hygrometer). Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions on caring and cleaning your humidifier to prevent mold, bacteria and allergens from growing in the machine and being deposited into the air.
Avoid irritating chemicals, solvents and detergents - Harsh cleaning chemicals, dishwashing detergents, alcohol-based hand sanitizers, scented laundry detergents and other chemicals can strip your skin of its natural lipid layer causing dry, irritated skin. Avoid these substances if possible or use rubber gloves and other gear for protection.
Control allergens - Many people think about allergies during the spring/fall months, but allergens can be just as troublesome in the winter when houses are sealed from the outside elements - particularly dust mites, pet dander and molds. Allergies have been linked to a severe form of dry skin, eczema, so for some, managing allergens can be a crucial factor in skin health! (read more about eczema at the end of this article) Using HEPA filtration in your furnace or as a stand-alone unit in high-traffic areas can help control airborne allergens. Frequent vacuuming or washing of rugs, furniture, curtains and other soft furnishings along with regular house cleaning in general is important to decrease allergen counts in the home. Using the fan while showering in the bathroom and controlling too much humidity around the house will help prevent mold growth.
Proper nutrition is one of the most basic ways to care for your body. As always, a balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins is best. However, a few foods and nutrients can be especially helpful for dry skin sufferers.
Drink water - While this may seem too obvious to mention, many people don’t drink enough water throughout the day! Water is a major component of the body’s cells, including skin cells. While the water you drink doesn’t necessarily flow directly to your skin, water is vital for proper skin cell functioning and needs to be replenished daily. Listen to your mother’s advice and drink at least eight 8 oz. glasses of water daily.
Limit caffeine and alcohol - Both caffeine and alcohol can cause dehydration due to their diuretic properties. Alcohol in large amounts is also toxic to your body in other ways that may affect your skin’s health in the long term. Limit caffeinated beverages to 1-2 a day and drink alcohol only in moderation - < 1 serving/day for women, < 2 servings/day for men.
Eat healthy fats - Healthy fat has gotten a lot of positive press in the recent years...and for good reason! Good fats, in the form of Omega-3 fatty acids, have been found to combat heart disease, high cholesterol, blood clots, joint pain and inflammation in general throughout the body. Promising new research has also linked Omega-3s with healthy skin. Eat foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids daily to combat dry skin and for overall body health.
Fish species that contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids**:
Plant sources of Omega-3 fatty acids:
- Pinto beans
- Wheat germ
- Canola Oil
Supplements: Omega-3 fatty acids can be taken as a supplement in the form of fish oil or flaxseed oil. Find a supplement that contains at least 1 gram of Omega-3 fatty acid and take daily if you are unable to get adequate amounts from food sources. While either one is good, fish sources of Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA/EPA) tend to be more potent than plant sources (ALA); however, flax supplements are often better tolerated than fish oil capsules.
Omega-6 fatty acids are worth a mention also regarding treatment of dry skin and eczema. While large amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids should generally be avoided, a few particular oils - Borage Oil, Evening Primrose Oil and Black Currant Oil - taken orally in the form of a supplement or applied topically may be beneficial for skin health, particularly those who suffer from eczema. Discuss specific recommendations with your healthcare provider.
Vitamin A - Vitamin A is vital for skin maintenance and repair; a deficiency of the vitamin may result in dry, flaky skin. Ensure adequate intake by eating foods high in vitamin A including: sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, leafy greens, cantaloupe and liver.
Vitamin E - Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant, meaning it helps to protect your body from free radicals that damage cells. Vitamin E helps to counteract skin damage from the sun and other toxins and also helps to soothe dry skin when used topically in a lotion or oil. Foods high in vitamin E include: Vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, wheat germ, spinach and olives.
Vitamin C - Vitamin C is also known for its powerful antioxidant properties and is often used in topical form along with Vitamin E to help combat signs of aging and improve the skin’s texture. Food sources of vitamin C include: Citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, berries and tropical fruits (guavas, papayas, kiwis).
*As with any vitamin, herb or supplement, discuss use with your health care provider before starting, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, have a chronic medical condition, take prescription medications or have any other questions or concerns.
**Women planning to conceive or who are pregnant should be wary of mercury levels in fish. Discuss specific recommendations with your health care provider.
When it comes to dry skin, a bottle of lotion is usually what most people grab first. Below are some recommendations for choosing a good moisturizer and other easy skin care tips along with a few homemade dry skin remedies.
Choosing a moisturizer - With the plethora of skin care products on the market, choosing the right moisturizer can be an overwhelming process involving a lot of trial and error. I always prefer natural products that are free from the “Dirty Dozen” chemicals if possible (here is an
about potentially toxic chemicals that are found in many cosmetics and skin care products). I also recommend using products that are alcohol-free, hypo-allergenic and fragrance-free to avoid skin irritation or allergic reactions.
Moisturizers generally come in three different forms: lotions, creams and ointments. Each formulation is a mixture of water and oil in differing concentrations. For example, an ointment has much more oil than water, a lotion has much more water than oil and a cream often consists of equal portions of each. An ointment may be the most “moisturizing” but is often quite greasy while a lotion may not provide enough moisture; the best choice is what works for your individual skin type and where you are applying the moisturizer.
A good moisturizer contains these three components:
Emollient : An emollient works by trapping moisture and preventing water loss from the skin. Examples include: beeswax, lanolin, oils, petroletum
Humectant: A humectant works by attracting water to the skin’s surface and making it more resistant to dryness. Examples include: amino acids, alpha hydroxy acids, glycerin, urea
Repairing Lipid: These are fats that mimic the naturally occurring oils on the skin and may help repair depleted cells. Emollients often contain repairing lipids. Examples include: ceramides, cholesterol, fatty acids
Find a moisturizer that works well for you and use it at least twice a day and as needed to treat and prevent dryness.
Avoid excessive, hot bathing - Long showers, hot tubs and hours spent at the YMCA pool can wash off too many of your skin’s natural oils and contribute to dry skin. Limit showers to 15 minutes, save swimming for the summer months and use warm or lukewarm water (not hot). In severe cases, bathe every other day (sponge-clean the important areas on the off days) for better results.
Avoid soaps - Standard soaps which are often lye-based and work by dissolving dirt and oils, can be much too drying for winter skin. Deodorant and/or antibacterial cleansers can also be overly drying. Instead, opt for a gentle, moisturizing body wash or gel for daily use and also for hand washing. For best results, choose products that are fragrance-free and hypo-allergenic.
Moisturize after bathing - Apply an emollient moisturizer to damp skin within a few minutes of getting out of the shower to help seal in moisture and preserve the skin’s natural oils.
Exfoliate - Exfoliating the skin by removing the outer layer of dry, dead skin cells enables moisturizing lotions and creams to penetrate the lower layers of dry skin. To exfoliate, gently rub your skin with a loofah or use an exfoliating body scrub 1-2 times a week. Some body parts that have thicker, rougher skin (such as the elbows and heels) may require more frequent exfoliation.
Manage itchiness - Dry skin can certainly cause itchiness! The most important thing here is....don’t scratch! Excessive scratching can create tiny fissures and breaks in the skin which become an entry point for bacteria and can potentially result in a skin infection or even scarring. Usually, itchiness can be prevented by avoiding environmental triggers, eating a healthy diet and following a proper skin care regimen. However, if you continue to experience itchiness despite the above measures, apply a thin layer of over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or ointment to the affected area twice a day. Long-term use (more than 5-7 days) of topical steroids is not recommended except under professional supervision, so contact your health care provider if needed. Oral antihistamines such as Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can also be helpful, especially if you are experiencing symptoms at night as antihistamines can facilitate sleep by causing drowsiness.
Natural homemade remedies - Save some money with these simple yet effective dry skin remedies made with common pantry items!
Sugar Scrub - To make your own exfoliating sugar scrub, mix 1 cup of sugar (regular granulated sugar, brown sugar or raw cane sugar all work well) with ¾ cup of oil (grapeseed oil, olive oil, coconut oil) in an airtight container. Massage into your skin as needed and rinse.
Body Oil Treatment - Rub 1-2 tablespoons of olive or grapeseed oil into damp skin after showering.
Facial Masks - Three ideas for dry skin facial masks:
- Mash a ripe avocado with a few drops of olive oil. Apply to face for 10 minutes; rinse.
- Mash a ripe banana with 2 tsp. buttermilk. Apply to face for 30 minutes; rinse.
- Mix equal portions raw oatmeal, honey and egg yolk. Apply to face for 20 minutes; rinse.
Overnight hand and foot treatment - Rub an emollient ointment moisturizer onto your hands and feet and then cover with cotton socks and gloves overnight for soft, smooth morning skin.
Do I have Eczema?
Some people suffer from much more than just an occasional bout of dry skin. Eczema, or Atopic Dermatitis, is a fairly common disease of childhood which can progress into or become a new problem during adulthood. Eczema is characterized by dry, itchy skin that turns into red, raised rashes forming scales, crusts and may drain clear fluid. Eczematous rashes often appear on the face (especially cheeks), trunk, scalp and inside the elbows/behind the knees. Scratching an eczema rash (which can be very, very itchy!) can make the problem much worse and increase the risk of developing an infection or other complication.
There are currently two different theories that explain the potential cause of eczema. First, that people with eczema have a genetic defect in their skin barrier that makes them much more susceptible to environmental triggers. Second, that people with eczema are hypersensitive to environmental triggers, making eczema primarily an allergic problem.
Regardless of the cause, treatment is the same and focuses on preventative strategies to help maintain the skin barrier and prevent exposure to triggers. In other words, closely following all of the above recommendations for environmental control, nutrition and a good skin care regimen. People with eczema are more likely to need steroid medications for flares and may require professional medical care from their primary care provider or dermatologist. However, I can’t stress enough the importance of self-care in managing eczema! Being proactive about maintaining good health is always a better strategy than being reactive and seeking treatment for a more serious problem down the road.
Do I have “something else”?
Most of the time, dry skin is just dry skin...but sometimes it can be a sign of “something else”. Dry skin can be the result of a more widespread, internal medical condition such as diabetes or a thyroid problem; it can be confused with other skin conditions such as an allergic rash or psoriasis; and it can also be a side effect from certain medications. If you experience a sudden or abnormal episode of dry skin or notice other symptoms along with it, please seek medical advice!
* This article is intended for informational use relevant to adults only, does not apply to the treatment of children and is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness. Consult your health care provider regarding specific recommendations (including all treatments, vitamins, herbs and medications) especially if you are pregnant, nursing, take daily medications, are chronically ill or have any other concerns.
Renae Wortz is a board certified Adult Nurse Practitioner. She received her graduate degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and currently works in a busy family practice clinic caring for a variety of patients with acute and chronic illnesses. Renae is especially passionate about health promotion and disease prevention through education and living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. To learn more about what a Nurse Practitioner is and does click
. She is also the Be Whole editor for
, an online magazine for moms where she writes articles about healthy, sustainable and mindful living. Renae lives with her husband Jeremy and son Elliot in Southwest Michigan.