During the summer, when we are all complaining about the hot, humid Midwestern weather, we yearn for cooler, drier air. Well, welcome to winter! Now the air is so dry it crackles, and our skin responds in kind.

“One of the most important functions of the skin is to be a barrier to protect the body from the external environment. Dry skin can exist without any other skin diseases. It’s more common with increasing age and sun damage, and it’s more common in the winter due to the colder temperatures and dry heat in homes,” says Dr. Lawrence Samuels, St. Luke’s Hospital chief of dermatology. “Moisturizers can help restore the normal skin barrier function. Consumers spend billions of dollars each year on these products; yet despite all the popularity and array of products, there are no precise guidelines for the most effective preparation.”

Dr. Joseph Muccini, a dermatologist with the Mid-America Skin Health and Vitality Center, recommends soaps labeled for sensitive skin, which often contain extra moisturizers and are hypoallergenic. He also favors ‘premium moisturizers,’ such as Cetaphil Restoraderm Skin Restoring Moisturizer.

To help better understand what you are buying, Samuels notes that there are three major categories of moisturizers: occlusives, which help prevent water loss from the skin; emollients (water-in-oil or oil-in-water), which help with water retention in the skin; and humectants, which actually attract water into the skin. He emphasizes that any product must be used correctly to maximize its benefit. “Putting a moisturizer directly on dry, flaky skin produces moisturized dead, flaky skin that was not exfoliated with bathing. (This method) uses only the water in the product to hydrate the skin. Shortly after application, the water from the product evaporates, leaving the skin dry again,” he says.

To avoid this, Samuels recommends washing gently with a soft cloth and a cleanser with a pH between 3.5 to 5.5 (showers are better than baths), followed by three to five minutes of drying, and a moisturizer that contains natural exfoliating agents. “This not only exfoliates, but with daily use, it will improve the normal skin exfoliation process producing healthier better looking skin,” he notes.

Muccini notes that thicker moisturizing creams can be used on the body, although acne-prone individuals should be especially careful to use a lighter facial moisturizer that will not clog pores.

Dr. Vivian Huang with Mercy Clinic Dermatology adds that ointments and creams are more effective and less irritating than lotions. “Look for a cream or ointment that contains an oil such as olive or jojoba. Shea butter also works well. Other ingredients that help to soothe dry skin include lactic acid, urea, hyaluronic acid, dimethicone, glycerin, lanolin, mineral oil and petrolatum.”

Huang also reminds us to wear lip balm. “Choose a lip balm that feels good on your lips; some healing lip balms can irritate your lips,” she notes. “Also, wear gloves. Our hands are often the first place we notice dry skin. You can reduce dry, raw skin by wearing gloves. Be sure to put gloves on before you go outdoors in winter, perform tasks that require you to get your hands wet, or get chemicals, greases and other substances on your hands.” Huang and Muccini also recommend using a room humidifier or making sure your HVAC humidifier is working properly to add moisture to the air.

“It should be emphasized that there is no cure for one’s age or the changes in aging skin. There are only things one can do to reverse its effects and maintain the benefit,” Samuels concludes. “Being in good shape with exercise ends when one stops the exercise. Having great skin ends when one quits taking care of their skin.”

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