Andrew J. Kaufman, MD, FACP
There are many factors that lead to skin dryness in the winter months. When the weather is cold, winds are blowing and you’re using your heater to heat your home and car, your skin tends to dry out more. As we get older, the water content of our skin decreases and some people (e.g. those with eczema) are particularly prone to dry or itchy skin.
First thing is to try to limit showers to 10 minutes or less and use luke-warm or tepid water. Longer showers and hot water tends to dry out the skin more. Use mild or moisturizing soaps or non-soap cleansers. Colloidal oatmeal baths can also soothe the skin. When you step out of the bath or shower pat the skin dry with a towel and apply a moisturizer immediately to trap some of the moisture within the skin. Good moisturizers tend to be bland and thick (e.g. Eucerin, Vanicream, Vaseline) and help to hydrate and maintain the skin’s barrier function. If your skin is particularly dry or itchy, apply a moisturizer two or more times during the day. Adequate moisturizer use will mitigate the need for topical medications.
In the event that hydration and the use of moisturizers do not control the symptoms of dry or itchy skin a dermatologist can prescribe a topical ointment or cream. Usually this is a prescription-strength topical steroid, but there are also non-steroid alternatives. Frequently, the short-term use of a potent topical steroid relieves the itching and inflammation and allows the skin to heal and the barrier function to recover. Oral antihistamines may also relieve itching and provide relief.
To maintain your skin, apply a moisturizer every day; wear cotton and soft fabrics and avoid rough or scratchy fabrics, and try to spend time every day relieving stress, either through exercise, yoga or meditation.