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Skin Care in the Dry Air

Q and A With Gunilla Carlsson Thorn, MD

When extra dry air begins to damage your skin, a few key changes in your daily care routine can provide considerable relief. A good moisturizer, proper outerwear and short, warm showers are just some of the ways you can protect your skin from flaking, cracking and infection in the harsh winter weather.

Gunilla Carlsson Thorn, MD, a dermatologist with Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, answered five questions about keeping your dry skin healthy all year long.

1. What’s the most important component of healthy skin care?

Establishing and maintaining a comprehensive skin care regimen is vital for healing dry skin. The most important element of this regimen is a good moisturizer. Ointments and creams will be more effective than lotions. Also make sure that you choose a product that is fragrance-free. As moisturizers work by trapping existing moisture in the skin, apply your moisturizer immediately after bathing and washing hands to maximize their effects. People with very dry skin often need to apply moisturizers several times per day.

2. What do you recommend as a healthy skin care routine for winter?

  • Long, hot showers can further damage dry skin; therefore, limit showers (and baths) to 5-10 minutes and use warm, rather than hot, water. Use a gentle fragrance-free cleanser and apply it with your hands rather than a potentially abrasive washcloth or sponge. Pat dry gently with a soft towel then immediately apply a moisturizer.
  • Apply moisturizers immediately after bathing and washing hands to lock in moisture. Also make sure that you choose a product that is fragrance-free.
  • Use only gentle skin care products. Avoid products that contain fragrances, alcohol or retinoids.
  • Avoid fragranced laundry detergent and rough clothing, such as wool. If you wish to wear wool but find that it irritates your skin, consider wearing a cotton layer underneath the wool item.
  • Run a humidifier to add moisture to the air in your home.
  • Protect your hands from harsh chemicals by wearing gloves when cleaning or doing dishes. Also, wear warm gloves when outside in winter weather and apply a moisturizing cream or ointment each time you wash your hands.

3. What do you recommend for extreme weather?

For extreme weather, choosing proper outerwear is very important. As our hands are often one of the first places we notice dry skin, protect them with a warm pair of gloves. Scarves, hats and facemasks may also be very helpful against harsh winds that damage the more sensitive skin on our faces and necks.

Lip balm should also be used to protect the lips, but some feel and work better than others. So if you notice stinging or tingling after applying, choose a different product. A 100 percent petrolatum product is usually a safe option.

4. What do you recommend for people with chronic dry skin?

For people with chronic dry skin, establishing and maintaining a good skin care routine is key. Frequent use of moisturizers and avoidance of potential irritants, including fragrances, long or hot showers, cleaning products and rough clothing, should provide significant relief. If, however, a person suffers from very dry skin, they may benefit from a prescription cream or ointment. In such a case they should consider seeing a dermatologist.

5. Why is it important to take care of your skin?

Dry skin can cause significant discomfort, including itching, burning and stinging. When skin becomes very dry, its normal protective mechanisms are compromised. This can manifest as painful fissures or cracks in the skin. These cracks can then serve as entry points for bacteria and thus increase one’s risk of infection. For people with atopic dermatitis (eczema), good dry skin care plays an enormous part in preventing flare-ups of this condition from occurring.