Most people think dry skin only occurs during the winter months when the wind blows and temperatures drop. The truth is dry skin is a problem for many people all year long regardless of the elements or the climate in which they live. When patients come to me complaining of dry, flaky skin I immediately ask a few pertinent questions about their skin care regimen and overall health:
What soap and/or moisturizer are you using?
What medications are you currently taking?
Do you have any pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, psoriasis, or hypothyroidism?
By finding the answers to a few simple questions I can usually pinpoint the cause of their problem. First let me say that when skin is healthy, it is coated with a thin layer of natural lipids that keep the skin soft and supple. For some reason these fatty oils have been stripped away and it is up to me to determine why.
The medical term for dry skin is xerosis and is just as common in both men and women. The difference is men are less likely to do something about it. Changing your skin care habits whether you are male or female will help you look better as you age and give you an overall younger appearance.
Common Causes for Dry Skin
Dry skin is caused either by something in the environment or something you’re doing to make it that way. Most of the time the cause is external and can easily be treated. Here are a few of the most common causes and why:
Misusing Moisturizer – applying moisturizer to dry skin rather than damp
Dry Air – heating and air conditioning can dry the atmosphere indoors
Long, Hot Showers & Baths – prolonged exposure can wash away natural oils
Soap – choice of harsh soaps are drying to the skin
Medications and Drugs – some medications have side effects that cause dryness
No one wants to have dry, itchy skin even if it doesn’t show on the surface or look unsightly to others. If left untreated dry skin can lead to inflammation of the skin better known as dermatitis or swelling, and infection. The good news is with careful skin care, you should be able to alleviate the problem.
Remedies for Dry Skin
The best way to combat dry skin is to add moisture both to the air around you and directly to your skin. Here are some things to try:
Soak in a lukewarm bath. Hot water strips away moisture and oils in your skin. Cooler water will help put the moisture back. A nice relaxing soak in a warm tub is also refreshing on a hot summer day. If your skin is itchy in addition to being dry, try adding a handful of rolled oats to the tub. The oatmeal will soothe, heal, and soften your skin.
Splurge on your soap. A creamier soap with cocoa butter or coconut oil can soothe skin and help to keep it from drying out. Creamy soaps are much better on dry skin than lye-based soaps.
Moisturize after showering. Towel off, but allow your skin to remain a little bit damp. Then use a body lotion or coconut oil on your skin. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then use your towel to remove any excess. Use a little extra moisturizer on spots prone to dryness like elbows, hands, feet, and legs. I prefer all-natural, vegetable-based lotions. I recommend you avoid lotions that contain lots of chemicals and fragrances.
Use a humidifier in your home. If you live in a dry climate-one where the humidity is less than 30%–a humidifier can make your home more comfortable. You’ll enjoy softer skin and probably find that you sleep better at night, too. (Dry air can aggravate the nasal passages and disrupt sleep.)
Support your skin with supplements. Certain supplements can help promote healthy, soft, toned skin. Studies show that taking vitamin C, vitamin E, lutein and alpha lipoic acid can help to improve the quality of your skin and protect it from damage due to sun exposure and oxidation. Moisturizing lotions that contain these nutrients are also good.
What If It’s More Than Dry Skin
Another condition related to dry skin presents more of a challenge. Keratosis pilaris (KP) affects 50% of adults. When you have KP, a protein in your skin called keratin builds up around hair follicles. It forms small patches of hardened skin, usually on your upper legs, back, or upper arms. These patches of skin resemble goose bumps. KP might be unsightly, but it’s not dangerous.
There are several topical treatments that can help to soften skin affected by KP and remove the protein build up. Many over-the-counter options are available. Lotions and creams containing alpha hydroxy acid, lactic acid, urea, or retinol can all help improve the texture of your skin. When used properly, these treatments can soften the skin, but if you overuse them, they can cause irritation. It’s important to follow the package directions.
If over-the-counter treatments don’t help your KP, make an appointment with your dermatologist. He or she can help you explore other options like microdermabrasion or a more potent topical cream.
Many people think dry skin and KP are conditions that you just have to live with. That is just not true! When it comes to taking care of your skin you can easily follow these simple skin care suggestions that will keep you looking and feeling your best.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.