Monday, January 18, 2010
It’s called “winter itch,” and it’s not a name for the hankering you feel to escape to a balmy beach in the Bahamas.
Winter itch is a skin condition that commonly affects people living in cold climates, using forced-air heaters and roaring fires in the fireplace to keep warm.
“In some people, their skin gets so dry, it actually starts to break down and get inflamed,” explains Lawrence dermatologist Matthew Buxton, “so they get itchy. You don’t necessarily see much of a rash, although if it goes on long enough, people will get what looks like typical eczema.”
Instead of scratching that itch, Dr. Buxton recommends putting moisture back into the skin, any way you can.
“The main thing is to start moisturizing earlier than you would think,” he says. “I usually tell people between Halloween and Easter.”
If you got a late start, don’t despair. Drugstore shelves are stocked with effective remedies. But are some lotions and creams better than others?
Buxton says yes. “I usually recommend brands that are bland. They’re white, so there’s no color and no perfumes. Women seem to love those Bath and Bodyworks-type products, which some people can get away with and it’s fine. But, in general, I tell people to avoid them because I don’t think they’re as moisturizing, and some people can have sensitivity to some of the colors and essential oils.”
Moisturizers work best when applied immediately after bathing. Experts recommend you pat yourself damp, not dry.
“If you towel-dry completely and you let the water evaporate off your skin, it actually takes off more moisture,” Buxton says.
Speaking of bathing, it’s best to keep your bath or shower water moderately warm. Hot showers strip the skin of needed oils.
“The hotter the water temperature, the more drying it tends to be. Think about pots and pans,” Buxton suggests. “If you’ve got a greasy pot, you put a lot of hot water and soap in there. Same thing with your skin, if you put a lot of hot water and soap on your skin, you’re going to take all the oil off. So, you want to keep the temperature down and use mild soap. I usually recommend things like Dove or Olay body wash.”
Another thing you can do for relief is increase the relative humidity in your living and working environments.
“A lot of people have humidifiers on their furnaces, which is good,” notes Buxton. “But on cold, bitter days, it’s usually not enough. Having one in the bedroom is especially important. When you’re sleeping, you’re going through 6 to 8 hours without taking in any water, so you’re going to get dehydrated. Plus, the air is dehydrating your skin.”
Placing a second humidifier in a room where you work long hours helps, too.
“For women who spend a lot of time in the kitchen, the old kettle simmering on the stove is a great way to get moisture into the air,” he says.
Staying hydrated on the inside can help your skin fight the good fight against arid winter air.
Buxton says, “Drink plenty of water throughout the day. And, while there’s nothing definitive on this yet, something that’s been talked about a long time is omega-3 fish oil. That’s good for your heart, as well, so I’ve been telling a lot of my patients who are dry and who have eczema to do that.”
Lawrence esthetician Joie Alkazian of Avanti Salon says she sees the problem all winter long.
“I see lots of dermatitis (also known as eczema),” she says, “especially on children who go outside a lot. Usually it shows up as dry, white bumps on the face and other areas of the skin.”
Sometimes, Alkazian notes, the problem isn’t dry, but dead skin.
“I’ve got women in their 20s and 30s who come in and say, ‘I’ve got dry, flaky, peeling skin,’ when, in reality, their skin is not dry,” she says. “But, they have layers and layers of dead skin built up, and when you’ve got all these dead cells stacked up on your skin, you can’t get the hydrators — the moisturizers — in there to do their thing.”
Alkazian says she recommends a light facial peel using glycolic acid to remove dead skin cells from the pores.
“Exfoliation on the surface is not enough,” she says. “The glycolic acid molecule is small enough to go inside your pore.”
“Good nutrition is also very important,” Alkazian adds. “And smoking, of course, is terrible for your skin. And alcohol. The sun is probably the biggest culprit. Very important to wear your sunscreen, even in the winter.”
“I tell my clients that our skin is an animal hide, you know, just like any other animal. And if it’s dried out and not taken care of, it’s going to look like it.”