One of the misgivings of winter is dry skin or xerosis, as it is known in medical terms. Having problems with dry skin can be quite uncomfortable. Your skin feels tight, even painful, and it looks unattractively red and flaky. It can maddeningly itch, making you want to scratch all day.
Dry skin is extremely common, especially in the cold season, according to Dr. Barney Kenet, a dermatologist at Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. There are probably close to 100 million Americans who go through the experience every year. Dry skin problems are usually easy to treat, but they can become more than a skin-deep health issue if you don’t pay attention.
During the Winter Months
Your Skin Needs Extra Protection
Don’t take dry skin lightly, warns Dr. Claude Burton, professor of dermatology at Duke University School of Medicine. “Your intact, healthy skin is your body’s primary defense against infections. If you let your skin get dried out and cracked, you could be giving all sorts of bacteria a way in. That can lead to more serious problems.”
Healthy skin is coated with a thin layer of natural molecules of fat, keeping it moist and smooth. Dry, cold air, harsh soaps, chlorinated water, itchy fabrics and misused cosmetics can strip away these fatty oils, leaving the skin unprotected. In many cases, the causes can also be internal such as a genetic predisposition or other medical conditions, including diabetes, psoriasis, hypothyroidism or malnutrition. If untreated, dry skin can lead to dermatitis – a form of inflammation.
“Dry air is probably the most common cause of dry skin,” says Dr. Kenet. “It draws the moisture right out of the skin. Another big problem lies indoors – the dry heat churned out by your furnace. To counteract dry heat, turn down the thermostat and use a humidifier,” he recommends.
As good as they may feel, you should also limit your hot showers to a few minutes per day. “Prolonged exposure to water, especially hot water, can wash away the natural oils that protect your skin. If you get out of the bath or shower and your skin feels tight, it’s dried out,” says Dr. Kenet. “Also, wash with a mild, fragrance-free soap. The best choice is a mild skin cleanser rather than soap,” he advises.
Certain medications can impact the health of your skin as well. For instance, some drugs for high blood pressure can have diuretic side effects. Age is another factor. Dry skin problems can especially plague older women because of hormonal changes. “As many as 75 percent of people over 65 have dry skin, according to Dr. Vesna Petronic-Rosic, professor of medicine and director of the Dermatology Outpatient Clinic at the University of Chicago Medical School.
Besides lathering on moisturizers, you can also take a number of dietary measures to fight skin dryness. The simplest and best way to keep your skin from drying out is to stay hydrated. Besides drinking lots of water, you should add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Preferably choose items with high-water content such as melons, apples, oranges, celery and cucumbers. Some experts say that drinking large amounts of water alone does not affect the skin all that much. “The water we drink is processed internally and does not impact the look and feel of the skin. It’s the skin’s outer layer that is essential for keeping moisture in – not the other way around,” says Michele Murphy, a Registered Dietitian at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center. On the other hand, diuretic drinks like tea, coffee and alcoholic beverages promote drying of the skin.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids offer great benefits for your skin, too. They are richly present in cold-water fish like salmon, tuna and trout. If you are not much of a fish eater, you can substitute with flaxseed oil, avocado and walnuts.
Make sure you get plenty of vitamin C throughout the winter months. Besides strengthening your immune system, vitamin C is essential for the formation of collagen in the body. Collagen allows the skin to absorb moisture.
Vitamin A, found in dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, can help to repair skin damage. Foods rich in carotene – carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and pumpkin – are also useful in this regard.
Vitamin E does not only boost the healing of skin tissue but also enhances moisturizing and bolsters defense against UV damage. Good sources for vitamin E include nuts, seeds, avocado, wheat germ, flaxseed oil and broccoli.
Oysters, crab, lean turkey, beef and beans are rich providers of zinc, a mineral that is especially useful for healing wounds and cracked skin.
There are lots of good reasons to keep your skin from drying – not just your looks but also your health. Your skin is your body’s largest organ and it deserves great care and protection.