The skin is the largest organ of the human body. A main function of the skin is to form a barrier: keeping harmful elements from infiltrating and infecting the body, and keeping vital fluids in. It allows us to venture out into the world when it’s hot or cold, and even defends us when we immerse ourselves in water, literally swimming through it.
Normal youthful healthy skin is strong enough to do all that, and do it well. In order to perform those functions, our skin grows out from living cells underneath and forms layers, with dead skin cells at the surface. Lipids (oils) are produced by the skin to help maintain that barrier.
When our skin becomes dry, some of that barrier function is compromised. The skin develops fine cracks and becomes sensitive and itchy. Scratching can worsen the situation, opening cracks, helping outside harmful agents in causing infection and inflammation and increasing the itchiness. As we age, our skin becomes thinner and produces less protective lipids, making older skin far more vulnerable to drying, redness, itchiness and infection.
In addition to these normal aging processes, we add our lifestyle. We tend to like long, hot showers which can accelerate the drying of our skin. Why? Like what happens to chocolate or butter, the oils at our skin’s surface becomes more fluid in hotter water: we are washing away the protection our skin is producing. And, in cleaning ourselves, we often use soaps that remove remaining oils from our skin. At other times of the day, when we wash our hands or do the dishes, soaps and detergents continually detract from our skin’s protection.
During winter months, we stay in heated buildings. The process of heating outside air reduces its already very low (relative) humidity, so our skin is drying rapidly. We might find ourselves being more comfortable being near a heater or fireplace. The heat feels good on the skin, but it’s forcing water to evaporate rapidly, further drying out our skin.
So what should we do? Take warm, not hot showers. While bathing, use a mild cleanser instead of a harsh soap, then pat your skin dry so you don’t rub off protective skin. And, just after bathing before your skin is allowed to dry out, apply a helpful “sealer” to keep that moisture locked in. [Allowing it to dry out immediately will just make you feel colder anyway!] If your feet tend to get too dry and the skin is cracking, you’ll want to soak in plain water for a few minutes to hydrate the skin. Pat your feet dry and immediately apply a sealer and put on a pair of socks or slippers. [Bring the socks with you to the bathroom – you don’t want to slip on the bathroom tile or track moisturizers around the house.]
For chapped lips or most dry skin, you can try a sealing product with petrolatum. Moisturizers with urea will help the skin retain water. And products containing ceramides help restore natural moisturizing skin factors and help rebuild a healthy skin barrier.
If you keep your skin sealed up, it can do its job and keep you healthy and comfortable.