Dry, rough skin during winter? What an expert says you can do to keep your skin healthy

No, it hasn’t been an especially cold winter, but when it comes to the health of our skin, it doesn’t have to be.

“Especially during the cold, winter months, the humidity drops,” said Dr. Abigail Waldman, a dermatologist and clinical director of Mohs surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Dry air means that moisture naturally present in skin evaporates at a higher rate from December through March, said Waldman. Add to the equation wind and exposure to indoor heat, and skin, essentially, cries uncle.

“The feeling is itching, it’s burning, it’s discomfort,” Waldman said.

It can also be painful to have dry skin. Think those tiny fissures that develop at the fingertips and sometimes on toes. In the case of fingers, these wounds can often be traced to good winter hygiene.

“We’re washing our hands with alcohol or soap and water many times a day, and there’s that evaporative water loss,” Waldman said. “The problem with moisturizing the hands is we have this really thick stratum corneum. Basically a shield that keeps a moisturizer from penetrating.”

To enhance penetration, Waldman recommends applying moisturizer and then a pair of cotton gloves -- especially at night. To seal the fissures, Waldman recommends a cream that contains at least 10% urea.

“Believe it or not, for really big fissures, we recommend using Gorilla Glue or Crazy Glue and just sealing them off,” said Waldman. “That will decrease the pain and also prevent any infections.”

And that brings up an important point about dry winter skin. While it is considered a minor medical problem, it can, if left untreated, lead to more serious issues, such as infection with bacteria or viruses. Waldman said that in most cases, dry skin is easy to fix,and inexpensive.

“You want to seal over your skin,” she said.

That keeps moisture from evaporating.

The best sealant, Waldman said, is petroleum jelly. But it’s also among the greasiest. Fortunately, drug store shelves are filled with more comfortable options for winter moisturizing.

When selecting one, Waldman advises thinking ‘thick’ -- as in the product’s consistency. Here’s her test: “If you open it and turn it upside down, it doesn’t fall out,” she said. “It holds its form.”

While the sun is weak this time of year, prolonged exposure can still cause damage the skin. This is especially true for those spending multiple hours on, for example, ski slopes.

“If you really are going to be all day doing these outdoor activities with no shade, it’s worthwhile putting on sunscreen,” Waldman said. “Every two hours. At least 30 SPF.”

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