The skin is the largest organ of the body and is ever-changing. It exists to protect us from the harshness of the surrounding environment, help regulate body temperature, gather sensory information, and also plays an important role in the body’s immune function.
With spring in the air and winter receding, we may roll up our sleeves only to find our skin is a bit worse for winter wear. After months of wind, cold, low humidity, and artificial indoor heat, our skin may be dry, itchy, and cracked. In short, our skin needs a little TLC.
A Look Through the Microscope
The skin consists of three layers: the subcutaneous tissue, the dermis, and the epidermis.
The subcutaneous tissue is the innermost and deepest layer of the skin. It consists of fat, blood vessels, connective tissue, and nerves. It serves to store energy, provide insulation, and protect what lies underneath from injury, acting as a sort of shock absorber. Its thickness varies depending on location, being thickest on the buttocks, and thinnest on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
The dermis is the middle layer of the skin and sits atop the subcutaneous tissue. It contains smaller blood vessels and nerve endings, sweat and oil glands, hair follicles, and two types of corpuscles that act to transmit the sensations of touch and pressure to the brain. The dermis is made up of three different types of tissue, one of which is collagen, and its thickness also varies by location.
The outermost layer of the skin is the epidermis, which consists of five layers of stacked cells. New cells are created on the bottom layer, and are gradually pushed upward toward the surface until they finally reach the outermost layer, where dead skin cells then slough off. The cycle of producing new cells and shedding dead cells takes approximately a month to complete. Millions of dead skin cells are shed every day, adding up to a total loss of approximately 1 to 1.5 pounds of dead skin each year.
The epidermis contains strengthening proteins, called keratinocytes, as well as three types of specialized cells: melanocytes, which produce melanin, or the skin’s pigment, Langerhans cells, which act as the skin’s first line of immune defense, and Merkel cells, whose function is not yet well understood. The thickness of the epidermis also varies, ranging from 0.5 millimeters on the eyelids to 1.5 millimeters on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
It’s the epidermis that takes the most abuse, and the layer that can become dry (a condition known as xerosis), itchy, and cracked—all due to a loss of water.
Let’s take a look at some simple, natural, and effective things that you can do to help remedy the impact of winter’s abuse.
Moisturizing means adding water to the skin and locking it in.
Moisturizing should be a daily part of your skincare routine. To help seal in moisture, the best way to apply a moisturizer is to rub it liberally into damp skin following a shower or bath. Over-the-counter ingredients often have a lot of ingredients in them, including alcohol and fragrances, some of which may irritate or dry out the skin.
There are some great home remedy options for moisturizing, and natural oils are among some of the best. Coconut oil has been shown in studies to be a safe and effective option for treating dry skin, while sunflower seed oil has also been shown in studies to offer improved hydration. Interestingly, the latter study showed that olive oil significantly damaged the skin barrier, however, other studies have shown benefit. Just be aware that not all natural oils make good choices for hydration.
In addition to having some impressive medicinal applications, honey has also been shown to improve dry skin, including eczema, and decrease skin inflammation. Aloe vera is an inexpensive option that has been proven to be great for not only moisturizing skin but for relieving redness and irritation. Other options from your kitchen include avocado, bananas, and yogurt.
If you do opt for an over-the-counter moisturizer, choose something with as few ingredients as possible, and ideally, with ingredients that look familiar. Some popular choices include Weleda Skin Food, Puracy Organic Hand and Body Lotion, and First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream. As with any product, whether natural or man-made, it’s a good idea to do a patch test to make sure your skin doesn’t react negatively.
Not only can the cold outside lead to dry skin, but so can the dry heat inside. Artificial heat makes the air extremely dry, and when alternated with the dry winter air, the skin can be stripped of its natural oils.
Running a humidifier is a great way to soothe and prevent dry, itchy, irritated skin. Options include cool mist, warm mist (not ideal due to bacterial overgrowth), and ultrasonic, and you can choose from whole-house, room, desk, and even car humidifiers. Whatever your choice, be sure to clean your humidifier weekly to prevent the growth of things such as bacteria, mold, and yeast.
Recommendations vary, but on average, keeping moisture levels somewhere between 50 to 60 percent should be sufficient to help dry skin. As an added bonus, humidifiers may help with snoring, prevent dry mucous membranes and nose bleeds, and improve allergies. More moisture in the air can even help prevent the spread of airborne viruses.
Since they’re formulated to remove oil, many soaps can actually pull moisture from the skin. It’s a good idea to use facial cleansers and body washes that are either unscented or for sensitive skin, and to avoid deodorant soaps and products with alcohol and perfumes. In addition, using laundry detergents and fabric softeners that are free of perfumes and dyes can help prevent and improve dry skin.
It’s also important to avoid scrub brushes, and to be gentle when using washcloths or sponges; otherwise you may damage your already at-risk skin. For the same reason, it’s a good idea to pat-dry your skin rather than rub. This also allows the skin to remain damp, which is ideal for applying moisturizer.
You may also want to be mindful of the clothes you wear in colder months. While cozying up in a wool sweater or coat may keep you warm, wool can irritate some people’s skin, especially those with dry skin. If this is you, be sure to wear a soft cotton shirt underneath, or consider opting for a cotton sweater instead.
And although it may be tempting, avoid scratching dry skin. Scratching not only irritates the skin, but could cause microtears that can introduce bacteria beneath the skin’s surface.
Develop Skin-Friendly Bathing Habits
While the cold weather may tempt you to take hotter and longer showers, this actually contributes to dry skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s best to take a warm shower or bath, and to generally limit the time to no more than 10 minutes; otherwise, the skin’s oily layer may be stripped away, causing it to lose moisture. Following the tips above while in and out of the shower also helps.
Another way to help moisturize and relieve dry skin is to add one cup of plain oatmeal in a tub of warm water and soak for about 15 minutes once a week. Oatmeal has a high protein content and can leave a protective layer on the skin to help lock in moisture. Oatmeal is also great for soothing eczema.
By employing some of these simple tips, you can keep your skin healthy, hydrated, and ready for the warmer weather to come.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a preventive family medicine physician and owner of Simpura Weight Loss and Wellness. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health through weight management, healthy habits, and disease prevention.