Dealing with “Winter Skin”
By Dale Peterson, MD
Can you tell me what to do for “winter skin”? asked the boy in my office. Every winter my skin gets red and scaly. It itches almost all the time and sometimes it hurts. It can even crack and bleed. The young man was describing a condition called eczema. Eczema develops much more frequently and is usually more severe in winter than at other times of the year.
Standing as it does between the finely balanced internal environment of the body and the chaotic external environment the skin is under constant attack. Eczema is an indication that the skin is losing the battle being waged against it. While eczema has many causes, the characteristic dryness, itching, and scaling are signs that the skin has lost its natural oils and is unable to retain adequate moisture. Successful eczema management demands that external and internal factors be addressed.
Chemical exposure should be limited. Wearing gloves when working with cleaners or solvents helps to keep the hands from becoming dry, rough, and inflamed. Installing and using a shower filter will go a long way toward protecting the skin from the drying effects of chemicals such as chlorine. If bathing, the tub should be filled through the filter.
The primary reason eczema is more common during the winter months is because the air is much drier than in other seasons. This is because cold air is not able to hold as much moisture as warm air. Since exposure to the elements during the winter can dry the skin, a moisturizing sunscreen should be applied when engaging in outdoor activities, especially on dry or windy days.
Because much of the limited moisture in the cold air is lost when it is heated, indoor air can be even drier. The relative humidity of indoor air in many North American homes during the winter months is lower than that in Death Valley.
The use of a humidifier will dramatically decrease the likelihood of developing winter skin. Placing a teapot or pan of water on a stove is insufficient, as gallons of water must be added to the air to bring the relative humidity up to a comfortable range. Automatic humidifiers may be incorporated into the central heating system or freestanding console units may be purchased. It is often better to place two or three small units in strategic locations than to rely upon a single large unit to adequately humidify air throughout the home.
It is also helpful to bathe less frequently during the winter. Supplementing a full shower or bath every other day or every third day with daily spot bathing will maintain good hygiene while preventing eczematous changes in most instances. When a full bath or shower is taken the water should be lukewarm rather than hot. Some water should be left on the skin and sealed in by applying oil. Deodorant soaps, which contain chemicals that dry and damage the skin, should be avoided.
When choosing a preparation to apply to irritated areas of skin it is important to understand that oils and ointments are moisturizing, creams are slightly drying, and lotions are very drying. It is best to apply an oil or ointment to dry skin, because a cream or lotion, while less greasy, will actually cause the skin to become drier as the water in the preparation evaporates. This can create a vicious cycle in which the product that is applied to relieve dryness and itching actually creates more dryness and itching and prevents healing.
Diets that are low in essential fatty acids do not provide the raw materials needed by the skin’s oil glands. When oil production declines, skin dryness becomes more pronounced. Essential fatty acid deficiencies may be addressed by supplementing omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in flax oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil, and fish oil. These are available in capsules and as liquids.
You need not live with winter skin. The health of your skin can be restored by limiting external environmental challenges, using oils and ointments to moisturize the skin, and by supplementing omega-3 fatty acids that allow oil glands to support the skin effectively. .
Dr. Dale Peterson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Medicine. He completed his residency in FamilyMedicine at the University of Oklahoma. He is a past president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians. He had a full-time family practice in Edmond, Oklahoma, for over 20 years and was a Chief of Staff of the Edmond Hospital. He was active in teachingfor many years as a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine through the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center.
Dr. Peterson left his full-time family practice in 1999 to consult with individuals who are seeking ways to restore and maintain their health through improved nutrition and other lifestyle changes. He founded the Wellness Clubs of America to give people access to credible information on supporting and maintaining their health. His monthly wellness letter, Health by Design, and his Health by Design E-Newsletter provide helpful information to individuals interested in preventing and conquering health challenges. His book Building Health by Design: Adding Life to Your Years and Years to Your Life was released in December 2010.
Dr. Peterson speaks regularly on subjects related to health and nutrition. He hosted a weekly radio program,Your Health Matters, on KTOK in Oklahoma City for five years. For the past nine years he has addressed questions from across the nation on his Your Health Matters weekly teleconference.He offers a free video LifeXtension course at www.drdalepeterson.com.
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