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Guide Health: Coping with dry skin

Good skin care habits and a moisturizer will help, but keep these tips in mind

Dry skin, or xeroderma as it is medically known, is estimated to affect 70 per cent of Canadians in the winter months. Probably, the real number is even higher, especially when winters are as cold and dry as this winter has been in so much of Canada.

Xeroderma is rough scaly skin that is flaky and itchy. Exposure to cold, dry outdoor air dries out the skin, and then when you come back inside, central heating is also very drying.

Dry skin itself is not caused by lack of oils in your skin, but rather water loss from the skin.

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Some conditions increase your susceptibility to dry skin, for example low thyroid levels, kidney disease, diabetes, liver disease. If there is a pre-existing skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis, the risk for dry skin also increases.

As well, the side effects of some medications include dry skin, for example niacin, vitamin A compounds and chemotherapy.

Good management of medical conditions and using moisturizing creams preventively certainly may help. One factor about which no one has control is your age, and as you get older a good skin moisturizing regime is essential.

It is the upper layer of the skin, or “stratum corneum” that is most involved in dry skin. It is composed of dead skin cells, flattened keratin cells and lipids. When there is a decrease in the lipid content (most notably the component known as ceramides) the integrity of the skin is compromised and dry skin can result. Several moisturizing creams actually contain ceramides which replace those that are lost.

Any treatment of dry skin is aimed at alleviating the feeling of rough, scaly skin and replenishing moisture to the skin. There is an abundance of options for skin creams, lotions, and even ointments. Creams and lotions have a more esthetically pleasing feel, but are easily removed. By contrast, while ointments may feel greasy, they are able to “lock-in” moisture.

Ideally, the choice should be a moisturizer that is liked, and thus has a greater chance of being used frequently. Also remember that moisturizers need to be applied when the skin is still moist from a shower or bath when it will more readily help maintain skin moisture.

Products that have alcohol bases such as gels can be drying and are best avoided. Instead, opt for equivalent cream products. Perfumes and artificial ingredients can increase irritation of already irritated dry skin. An unscented emollient cream is preferred and needs to be applied in an ample layer three or four times daily.

Household humidity should be between 40 and 50 per cent, and a humidifier may be needed to achieve this, but remember to keep it clean. And, of course make sure your personal hydration is sufficient; drinking water is best.

Bathing and showering need to be brief, and with warm, not hot water. Harsh or perfumed soaps can cause skin irritation, as can ingredients like lanolin, propylene glycol, vitamin E and aloe vera.

After washing (this goes for your hands too!) pat your skin dry rather than rubbing vigorously. You want to keep clean, but not cause skin dryness or damage. Protect the skin whenever it is exposed to something potentially damaging, so when outdoors, wear gloves and scarves, use sunscreen lip balm, and wear rubber gloves to do household tasks like washing dishes.

With dry skin, itchiness and damage are more likely to occur. Skin products containing oatmeal may reduce irritation, but an antihistamine may be needed to reduce itchiness or even a steroid cream for local application. Scratching the skin can cause even more damage, especially in winter months!

About the author

Contributor

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.

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