Battling Dry Skin in the Winter

by James Thompson, M.D. Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

Seasonal allergy sufferers are still enjoying the absence of outdoor allergy triggers as the days of winter come and go. If you are fortunate enough to have avoided severe colds, sinus infection and flu symptoms up to now, the outlook is good. On the other hand, those who are sensitive to indoor allergy triggers have not experienced as much of a decrease in allergy symptoms.

Furthermore, people with chronic skin conditions such as eczema or xerosis (dry skin) often have more problems during the winter months.

Atopic dermatitis is an allergic form of eczema that may be worsened by dry skin. You can learn more about allergic and non-allergic eczema by clicking here: Eczema.

Xerosis is a condition that involves excessively dry skin and may occur in allergic or non-allergic settings. People of all ages, both genders and many ethnic groups suffer from this problem.

What are the signs and symptoms of xerosis?

The skin appears dull, rough and scaly. Sometimes there is a flaky pattern associated with the breaking off of tiny flecks of skin. In severe conditions the skin may appear inflamed (red patches) and have cracks. This tends to occur on the legs, arms, lower trunk and back of the hands.

The chief presenting complaint in my office is itching (pruritis). Dry skin is often associated with itching which leads to scratching. The scratching causes further skin damage which may result in infection and inflammation.

How and why does this develop?

For unexplained reasons some people are more prone to loss of moisture from the skin than others. The skin naturally forms a protective oil to preserve moisture. This layer of oil may be deficient in some individuals or become deficient when there is frequent bathing or use of harsh soaps.

Some causes and underlying conditions include:

  • Excessive showering or bathing (more than once daily)

  • Use of harsh soaps or shampoos (if shampooing in the shower or bath tub)

  • Low humidity (very common in the winter)

  • Atopic dermatitis

  • Icthyosis (marked by extremely dry skin with fish-like scaling)

  • Diabetes mellitus

  • Malnutrition

  • Liver or kidney disease

  • Hypothyroidism

  • Other chronic infections and some tumors

What is the treatment for Xerosis?

Here are 8 Tips:

  • 1. Limit your bath or shower to once daily if practical (you know if this tip should be over-ruled). Shower or bathe in lukewarm water (not hot!). Limit the baths to 15 mins.

  • 2. Avoid harsh deodorant soaps. I recommend Dove or Basis. They contain fewer chemicals and are closer to the skin's natural ph (acid level).

  • 3. Avoid shampooing in the shower or bath (in order to protect the skin from the harsh preservatives and other chemicals)

  • 4. Aggressively moisturize with plain petroleum (such as Vaseline), applying it to the skin while still damp from the shower/bath. This means, do not rub with towel to dry off the skin. Simply pat or blot but leave the skin damp. This allows natural water to be trapped in the skin for hydration.

  • 5. Avoid applying Vaseline to the face, groin or arm pits. A lotion is preferred for the face, in order to avoid clogging up oil glands with the thicker petroleum. Eucerin lotion, Moisturel or Aveeno are reasonable selections. Many other lotions have several chemicals which may irritate sensitive skin.

  • 6. If there is no source of humidity in the home, try a portable humidifier. Remember to clean it regularly in order to avoid a mold problem. Do not over humidify because your dust mite and indoor mold levels may skyrocket.

  • 7. Use dye-free and fragrance-free detergents, bleach, fabric softeners and dryer sheets whenever possible. Remember: "Less is more when it comes to laundry aides."

  • 8. If you have any of the medical conditions mentioned above see your doctor. Ask your doctor if the condition may be contributing to your skin problem and how to better manage the underlying disorder.

When should you consult a skin specialist or allergist?

Discuss problematic dryness of your skin, or itching with your primary doctor first. Ask about seeing a specialist if the problem persists.

Dry skin is a problem shared by many. Some of the above tips are not only helpful for xerosis but may help to prevent flare-ups of eczema and other chronic skin disorders that are associated with xerosis .

James Thompson, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
James Thompson, M.D.

Dr. Thompson completed medical school and specialty training in allergy and immunology at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Allergy and Immunology. He sees adults and children in Chicago and greater Chicago area. He is also certified in Integrative Nutrition Coaching. Dr. Thompson is dedicated to incorporating holistic nutrition concepts into the treatment of asthma and other allergic diseases in order to achieve better health and reduce the need for medications.