Healthy Outlook: Pro tips to handle dry winter skin

We’re about two-thirds of the way through January. For those who haven’t lived in the Kansas City area long, that means we could see springtime as early as next week, or we’ll find ourselves amid another arctic freeze a month or two from now. Maybe both. You just never know — that’s what keeps it exciting.

Regardless, the relatively cold and dry winter air has already had plenty of time to do its damage. After texting my mother last week to ask if we have any lizard people in our family tree, I decided it’s time to research the best methods for handling the dry scales — er, skin — this weather can bring.

I spoke with Dr. Anand Rajpara, a dermatologist with the University of Kansas Health System.

Tips from a pro: Dry Skin 101

Rule No. 1: Take short showers. Even though a long, hot shower might feel like a nice way to escape the cold, it will actually dry out your skin more, Rajpara said.

While you’re in that short shower, Rajpara said most dermatologists recommend Dove white unscented soap, and you can skip the relatively new-to-the-market in-shower moisturizers and lotions.

Dr. Anand Rajpara, dermatologist with the University of Kansas Health System

“(Soaps with) moisturizers and things with fragrances can actually irritate your skin and dry it out further,” he said.

Also, though Rajpara said exfoliating has its benefits, winter might not be the best time for it.

“When your skin is dry and sensitive, we actually recommend against exfoliating — or just very gentle exfoliation, to not irritate and inflame the skin,” he said.

Then it’s time to pat your skin dry and slather on some moisturizer. The best type to use, Rajpara said, is a greasy ointment such as Vaseline; however, he said a lot of people don’t like the feeling of that.

The next best bet is a dye-free, fragrance-free moisturizing cream such as CeraVe, Vanicream or Cetaphil. Rajpara said those are thicker creams, but they likely won’t cause an allergy, and people generally like the feeling of them better than an ointment.

Another option that I’ve noticed becoming trendy is using coconut oil as a moisturizer. Rajpara said dermatologists are “definitely fine with people using coconut oil,” which, texture-wise, falls in between an ointment and a heavy cream. So if you’re one to opt for natural, organic choices, that’s a good one.

My apologies to the other members of my Bath & Body Works congregation: Rajpara said lotions are actually the least effective moisturizers.

“But we say the best moisturizer is the one that the patient will actually put on,” he said. Put simply, anything is better than nothing.

With wisdom comes dryness

If you worry that your dry skin is becoming a bigger problem as you age, it’s not in your head. Rajpara said our skin’s ability to retain moisture decreases significantly with age. This dry skin also causes a predisposition for eczema — red, inflamed and itchy skin.

“In that case, greasy ointment can help, but a lot of the time you’ll need to see your dermatologist to get stronger, prescription steroids,” he said.

It can certainly happen to people who have never had that problem before, too.

“We see people who have never had eczema, when they get into their 50s and 60s, get a so-called ‘winter itch,'” Rajpara said, and that often comes with extremely itchy, red, coin-shaped lesions called nummular dermatitis. It often starts on the legs but can spread — dermatologists see it frequently.

Rajpara said he also sees a lot of patients with painful cracks or fissures caused by dry skin.

“One trick we recommend that actually works really well is applying super glue into the crack to seal it, and that actually helps resolve the pain a lot,” he said.

Other options?

Keeping the air in your home moist with a humidifier can help, Rajpara said. Any kind of cold weather can dry out your skin more, but heating your home to 70 degrees or warmer should also help with that.

I felt a bit sheepish learning that my long-held, unsourced notion that staying hydrated helps keep your skin that way too is actually false.

“Staying hydrated is always good, but the water you drink doesn’t actually transfer to the skin, so that’s why you have to continually moisturize,” Rajpara said.

There aren’t really any dietary changes that will help keep your skin moist, but missing out on a healthy, well-balanced diet can have adverse effects, Rajpara said. Deficiencies of certain nutrients — particularly A, C and B vitamins — can cause a range of unhealthy skin symptoms (briefly: phrynoderma, or toad skin; bleeding hair follicles, from scurvy; and the extreme dry, flaky skin that comes with pellagra, respectively).

Though environmental factors can affect your skin, the best way to weather the cold is to just keep moisturizing. We can all survive until the humidity returns; then we’ll have something new to complain about once more. Ah, the circle of life.