Xerosis, the medical term for dry skin, is a common part of winter for many people.
The skin is our largest organ in the body. While most of us think of it merely as wrapping, like all organs the skin plays a vital role in our wellbeing. It is especially important in helping us adapt to our physical environment. Whether the temperature is below zero or in the searing 40’s, humid or so dry the moisture is sucked from our breath, our skin buffers the forces of nature as best it can.
The problem with winter is not so much the cool outdoors but the dry heat inside our buildings. The skin must not just adapt to two very different microclimates but also the shock of going from one extreme to another in a matter of seconds. This what not really the job it signed up for!
Indoor heating tends to be dry rather than moist, further taxing the hydration of our skin. Yet a long soak in a hot bubble bath, as wet and warm as that may be, can further strip some of the protective lipids from our skin. So too the detergent shampoo lather that runs over our body, from scalp to feet, when we wash our hair in the shower.
With the change in environment from cold to over warm, our skin needs to sweat a little more to cool us down. In winter many people decrease their water intake, sometimes thinking they don’t need so much in winter, or replace a refreshing glass of H2O with a hot caffeinated drink that can further dehydrate us.
As we age, the skin tends to become drier. Other than environmental factors such as dry, over-heated homes and dehydration, vitamin D deficiency and a host of other factors common to care facilities, with aging the lipid (fat) component of the skin changes.
Other common causes of dry skin
Eczema and dermatitis are atopic allergies – usually an inherited disposition that may be triggered by foods, chemicals, stress and contact with certain irritants. The skin can be generally dry but usually has red itchy patches that when aggravated may become painful and weep. Other atopic allergies include hayfever and asthma.
Psoriasis – is a scaly skin condition caused by the body making too many skin cells in one area. Foods and substances that cause the body to make arachidonic acid (red meat, dairy, alcohol, caffeine and smoking) tend to make this condition worse. Some people may only get psoriasis under a finger or toe nail or a patch in the scalp.
Vitamin A deficiency – is a common underlying cause of non-specific dry skin. It may also cause rough skin in patches, such as small raised bands of lumps at the top of the arms.
Some drugs such as statins (prescribed to lower cholesterol) are a common cause of dry skin.
Dry skin can be a symptom of more serious conditions such as an under-active thyroid and diabetes.
Some ways to avoid dry skin in winter
Treat any underlying eczema/dermatitis: if you are prone to this or had eczema as a baby – try removing dairy products from the diet through winter, don’t wear wool next to the skin and follow all the other suggestions below.
Have a break from soap: as most soaps can dry the skin out even more try an oat bag (a clean cloth with a handful of rolled oats) or sorbalene to clean your body instead.
Wash hair over a basin: to stop the oil-stripping shampoo running over your body.
Rehydrate: remember to drink water and caffeine-free herbal teas, potassium rich vegetable soups and juices.
Drink less caffeine and alcohol: as it just dries you out further.
Turn heating down: to lessen the temperature difference between outside and in. Keep the heating to 18 c.
Use a humidifier: as an alternative to a heater or if you have heating vents in the floor place a bowl of water beside them.
Wear layers: of breathable fabrics but be careful of wool if you have eczema.
Eat more orange vegetables and fruits: and red ones too like beetroot, as these a good natural source of vitamin A.
Choose oily fish: and replace a meat meal with it for extra omega 3’s.
If you want to take a supplement consider vitamin A and omega 3 fatty acids – ideally fish oils, or for vegetarians a GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) rich source such as flaxseed/linseed, borage, black currant or evening primrose oil plus a good multivitamin for the necessary co-factors.
The temptation with dry skin is often to concentrate only on what we are putting on the outside, rather than treating the underlying causes of our skin to dry out. Adding extra oil directly to the skin can provide temporary relief but it is always short term.
Many beauty products have a long list of mysterious chemicals that the skin really does not need. Added fragrances or colours may further irritate it as well.
A simple remedy is straight Vitamin E oil from a liquid E supplement or a by piercing a capsule of the oil. It is safe for most people to use on delicate skin, like the face. Apply before bed to let the oil hydrate and soothe your skin as your sleep.
If your skin is itchy try a herbal cream, gel or ointment with the chickweed.
Thicker preparations such as paw paw creams can be useful to create an extra barrier for the skin but also soothe it at the same time.