Friday, November 18, 2011

Trying to stay warm can make skin dryness worse

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. The old adage usually refers to lost love, but the same holds true for the skin’s protective lipid layer. 
You might not even know your skin has a protective lipid layer, but when the temperatures drop and your skin dries out, you can tell it’s gone. 

Winter weather and the things we do to stave off the cold make dry skin worse.

When it’s cold outside, we run the furnace, which removes humidity from the air. We take long, hot showers to warm up, and hot water saps moisture. We wear wool clothing, but it can cause friction and itching, which further irritate already-dry skin.

Dr. Elizabeth Small, a Springfield Clinic dermatologist with 31 years of experience, said treating dry skin is “quite common” in the winter months. Once the protective lipid layer is gone, water evaporates from the skin, which causes it to dry and crack.

Frequent hand washing and the use of antibacterial hand gels — both of which are promoted during cold and flu season to keep germs at bay — dry out skin. 

“Health care and child care workers are prone to dry skin because of frequent hand washing. I know from personal experience,” Small said. “I almost always have a finger crack by the end of the week, and it takes the weekend to heal.”

A simple solution is to find an antibacterial hand lotion and apply it after hand washing.

Michelle Schroeder, an early childhood teacher in Springfield, develops itchy, rough skin in the winter. Washing her hands countless times throughout the day only makes it worse. 

After trying a variety of products, most of which didn’t heal her dry skin, she discovered Herbacin, an over-the-counter lotion she applies frequently throughout the day. 

She also drinks ample water to stay hydrated. Small says a healthy person should try to consume 64 ounces a day. 

Signs of excessive dryness include itchy, flaky, red, scaly, cracked skin.

Amy Behrens, a registered nurse from Rochester, says winter is definitely the worst time of year for dry skin, and the first sign is usually the appearance of her hands.

The mother of two jokes that she knows she has dry skin when she looks down and sees her grandma’s hands at the end of her arms. Indeed, dry skin looked more aged than youthful, hydrated skin.

“My hands usually start looking scaly and feeling dry and scratchy,” Behrens said. “

"Working in health care means I am constantly washing my hands and applying sanitizer. It’s not easy on the skin, but it’s best for patients. At work, I use hospital-provided hand lotion that is compatible with latex gloves we wear.”

To repair the damage, Behrens uses Aquafor and Eucerin, both over-the-counter moisturizers, at home.

When desperate, Behrens uses an “overnight Aquaphor remedy” to hydrate hands or feet. Simply apply before bed, slip on old socks and sleep in them. 

“It is greasy,” Behrens said, “but it works.”

Heather Jordan, who works at the Springfield Developmental Center, says her hands “feel like sandpaper” when winter rolls around. 

She uses Gold Bond Ultimate skin lotion, the “only lotion that sustains the moisture for several hours.”

Personal preference seems to dictate which OTC moisturizer to use, but when the symptoms persist, it’s time to see a doctor.

“If you have cracked fingers that aren’t healing, inflamed, itchy skin that keeps you up at night or you have trouble walking because of cracked heels, you should see a doctor,” Small said. 

Doctors can prescribe cortisone creams that contain higher levels of cortisone and other steroids than OTC products. Low-potency steroid cream cuts down on the symptoms and allows skin to heal faster. 

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