Dry Skin: Soothing the Itch in Winter

Does your dry skin make you want to hibernate?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 17, 2008
4 min read

Does winter-dry skin make you want to hibernate this time of year?

You're not alone. No matter what our age, most of us experience flaky, itchy skin at some point when the weather gets chilly. The culprits may be winter wind, dry indoor air, harsh soaps, low humidity, or even a cold-weather sunburn.

With all that working against us, what can we do to pamper -- and prevent -- dry skin? The experts offer help with these winter skin care tips.

  • Clear Away Old Skin Cells

Sloughing away dead cells is the first step to pampering your dry skin, writes Joely A. Kaufman, MD, in the American Academy of Dermatology's Skin News Briefs. That's because the clearer the skin, the deeper a moisturizer can penetrate.

To shed old skin cells, Kaufman suggests exfoliating with an over-the-counter or prescription keratolytic moisturizer, one containing lactic or salicylic acid. And whether or not you're dealing with normal, sensitive, or dry skin, it's always a good idea to exfoliate gently -- a soft scrub is all you need. If your skin is super dry or irritated, talk to your doctor before starting a new skin care product or regimen.

  • Take Time to Moisturize

Once you've got a fresh, smooth surface to work with, soothe winter-dry skin with an oil-based moisturizer. Thick, heavy products like these have more staying power, and keep water from evaporating from your skin.

Not a fan of fancy creams and lotions? You can also help dry skin with basic moisturizer ingredients such as mineral oil, petroleum jelly, or glycerin. Whichever product you choose, be sure to smooth on your preferred moisturizer right after a shower, then pat your skin dry.

  • Warm Showers and Baths Only, Please

Long, hot showers may feel divine, but they can be damning for troubled, itchy skin, drying it out even further, reports Susan C. Taylor, MD, in Skin News Briefs. The solution if you're dealing with dry skin: learn to warm up to short, lukewarm baths and showers, which help your body retain its natural, skin-protecting oils.

And when you bathe, use soap only on the spots that really need it, such as your face, underarms, groin, and feet. Since the rest of your body doesn't tend to get very dirty, a simple warm-water wash everywhere else is fine say the pros -- and it helps you retain those vital natural oils.

  • Use a Gentle Cleanser

Scented, deodorant, and anti-bacterial soaps can be harsh, stripping skin of essential oils. That's why many skin care experts suggest using non-scented, mild cleansers or soap-free products like Aveeno, Cetaphil, Dove, Dreft, or Neutrogena.

Body washes with petrolatum (another name for petroleum jelly) are also a great option for soothing very dry skin, says Kaufman, helping to trap in water as you clean.

Though the sun's rays are less intense in winter, those rays can still burn and damage your skin, says Taylor.

As a matter of fact, snow is an even better reflector than water, bouncing 80% of the sun's rays back to us, compared to less than 20% for sand and surf. That's why you can get a nasty sunburn even in winter -- and why it's important to put on sunscreen all year long.

For daily protection, Taylor suggests using a moisturizer with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, and when heading outdoors for winter fun, use a sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of 15 or higher. And give your UV protection an even bigger boost by donning sunglasses, a hat, and scarf.

  • Eat Up for Better Skin

A diet rich in healthy fats can be another crucial element in your fight against dry, itchy skin. That's because essential fatty acids like omega-3s help make up your skin's natural, moisture-retaining oil barrier. Too few of these healthy fats can not only encourage irritated, dry skin, but leave you more prone to acne, too.

Give your diet an essential fatty acid boost with omega-3-rich foods like flax, walnuts, and safflower oil, as well as cold-water fish such as tuna, herring, halibut, salmon, sardines, and mackerel.

  • Hydrate Yourself -- And Your House

Dry indoor air can really irritate your skin, so give it a fighting chance by keeping inside air moist. Taylor recommends using a humidifier to pump up the moisture, or even surrounding yourself with indoor plants.

Whichever you choose, aim for an indoor moisture level between 40% and 50%. Investing in a $5 hygrometer (humidity monitor) can help you easily keep track of your house's humidity.

And don't forget to humidify from the inside out by drinking lots of water. To keep skin at optimal hydration, Kaufman recommends 6-8 glasses daily.

If you're skin gets really dry in winter and these tips aren't helping, or if you develop eczema or other skin irritation, it's time to talk to a dermatologist.

Not only can a dermatologist prescribe stronger treatments to soothe dry skin, they can also help you tailor a skin care regimen that suits your individual needs.

Talk to your primary care physician for a recommendation, or visit the American Academy of Dermatology's web site to find a certified dermatologist near you.