Dry skin problems run deep

January 30, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

Megan Myers and Katlyn Alexander are all too familiar with the chafed, cracked and extremely dry skin that comes with the winter season.

The hairstylist and shampoo assistant spend their workday with their hands submerged in hot, soapy water. On the coldest days, their skin can get so dry, it cracks and bleeds.

"Last year, my hands were horrible," says Myers, a stylist at Sagittarius Salon & Spa in Hagerstown. "They cracked open. They bled. Our hands are in so much water you can't avoid it."


Fortunately there are skin-care treatments that can help people get through months of dry skin, Tri-State area doctors say.

Dr. Sarah Buchanan, a physician with Williamsport Family Practice says her "favorite recommendation" to treat dry skin is to use products such as bath oil or body butter immediately after bathing and while skin is still wet.

"That oil will seal the moisture into the skin," Buchanan says.

Ointments and creams are recommended over more water-based lotions, adds Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a physician at Harpers Ferry Family Medicine in West Virginia.

"The best is the greasiest," he says. "If you have severe cracked hands, find the thickest moisturizer and put that on before you go to bed." For the most intense moisturizing and healing, look for products such as Vaseline Petroleum Jelly, he says. Products that are in a solid state are generally more moisturizing than products that are liquid.

Other hydrating ingredients to look for in topical creams are lanolin, petrolatum and beeswax, Buchanan says.

Dry skin is caused by several environmental and behavioral factors, doctors explain.

"The reason that we get dry skin during the winter is because the humidity is much lower," Buchanan says. Cold air holds less moisture, making the air drier.

"Also, people tend not to drink as much water" in the winter, Buchanan says. "They are drinking their hot tea and their coffee. Those have caffeine," which also can dehydrate the body.

Dry skin can be related to genetics as well. "Some people are more prone to dry skin than others," Cucuzzella says.

The environment also plays a big role in the severity of dry skin. Cucuzzella most recently lived in Colorado where he says dry skin was much worse because "it's dramatically dry in Colorado."

Individual habits also can play a role. Hot baths and showers can sap skin of moisture, and people who frequently wash their hands can have problems with drying, harsh soaps.

If dry skin is a concern, try a moisturizing soap or try a no-water, alcohol-free hand sanitizer instead of washing hands with standard bar soap, doctors recommend.

"In what we do, all of our hands are cracking throughout the winter because we wash our hands constantly," Cucuzzella says. No-water hand sanitizers can be less drying, and some research indicates hand sanitizers are better antibacterial fighters than classic soap, Buchanan says.

Beth Mackey, an esthetician at Sagittarius Salon & Spa, recommends skin-care products containing hyaluronic acid to help treat dry, winter skin.

Hyaluronic acid is naturally produced by the body and attracts and holds water to keep skin hydrated.

"Generally speaking, the face is the hardest to keep moisturized because it's bared to the elements all the time," Mackey says. She recommends keeping facial skin hydrated by using a moisturizer with hyaluronic acid or cucumber extract at night.

Dry skin can be caused by hormonal changes in women, Mackey adds.

Since dry skin is a condition that most people experience when humidity levels drop, Mackey advises people to reconsider what skin-care products they use during colder months.

People who use skin-care cleansers, scrubs and washes might want to change how often they use such products, and they might want to choose products that will keep skin hydrated, she explains.

Scrubs with a course base are best avoided for people who have dry skin and products with benzoyl peroxide should be used sparingly.

For people who want to take dry skin solutions further, spas offer "lots of treatments" to help refresh, rehydrate and moisturize skin, Mackey says.

Shedding skin

Dead cells make up the stratum corneum, the outermost portion of the epidermis, which is the outer layer of skin. Stratum corneum cells flake off every day and are continuously replaced by more cells.

The stratum corneum is a dynamic structure that affects not only your skin's appearance but also its health. That's because the part of the stratum corneum between the cells is composed mainly of fats (lipids) such as ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids. These fats form a protective barrier that preserves the moisture in your body. Strip away the barrier and your skin cells lose the water they need to stay healthy.

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