January 28, 2014

Smart bathing techniques can help with dry, itchy winter skin, Vanderbilt dermatologist says


If you suffer from dry, itchy skin in winter, there may be a simple solution: be a smarter bather, a Vanderbilt dermatologist says.

“Like a vacuum, the dry air of winter sucks water right out of our skin,” says John Zic, M.D., associate professor of Medicine, a dermatologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. And when the moisture gets sucked out of skin, the dry skin of winter is more likely to become inflamed and itchy. Dry skin is the single most common cause of skin itchiness, Zic says.

While we can’t do anything about winter weather, we can make some simple changes in the shower or bath that can make a big difference, Zic says.

Start with choice of soap. “Use superfatted soaps, but not heavily perfumed soaps,” he says. Superfatted soaps add moisturizers, while soaps with perfumes wash oils away and make skin drier. Also, liquid soaps are generally more moisturizing than bar soaps.

Next, watch the time and temperature. Short, warm showers are better than long, hot baths. The heat of a hot bath melts away the skin’s protective oils and may dry out the skin. “Our bodies have a natural layer of oil that helps protect the skin, but the dry air of winter (along with poor skin care) can override this natural protection and leave a lot of people with itchy, scaly winter skin,” he says.

Skin care even extends to how you dry off after bathing. The trick is to pat, not rub, Zic says. “Vigorous rubbing leaves protective oil on the towel, not on the skin.”

Before you get dressed, moisturize. “Immediately after a bath is a good time to moisturize, because it can seal the moisture in your skin. Unscented moisturizers are better because the fragrances are added to products along with alcohol, which can dry the skin.”

And then comes getting dressed—even how your clothes are washed and dried can make a difference in the experience of dry, itchy skin. “Fragrance-free laundry detergents are better for your skin, because products with fragrance can transfer from clothes to skin and cause dryness,” Zic says. “Also, fabric softener dryer sheets can contribute to dryness because of the fragrances embedded in them.”

While how we wash ourselves and our clothes may not solve every dry skin problem, there are other things we can do—like keeping home humidity elevated and using lotion or petroleum jelly through the day on hands, for example. Zic says these simple changes can make a big difference in how our skin feels through the driest time of the year.