In many parts of the country winter brings cold weather and a drop in humidity. Heaters in the home are running which adds to the dryness of the air. Skin tends to lose its water by evaporation into this dry environment. This is particularly extreme with aging or with diabetes, when the skin’s oil glands become less productive. Without a barrier of oil the skin can’t prevent this evaporation and is much more prone to becoming dry.
A common sign of excessive dryness is cracking or fissuring of the skin on the fingers, toes or heels of the feet. Widespread flaking and peeling of skin can be seen as can redness and irritation. This dryness of the skin can become itchy and inflamed, creating a condition called dermatitis. Scratching can cause open sores that add a risk of infection. On the legs below the knee, some people retain fluid (edema) resulting in swelling and stretching of the skin that can add to the dermatitis.
It is important to minimize dryness to avoid skin complications and there are several steps that can be taken to do so:
- Keep showers or baths not too long and not too hot. Prolonged exposure to hot water tends to strip the skin of its natural oils. Allow your skin to soak up water in the bath or shower. When the tips of the fingers or toes look like wrinkled prunes, the skin has absorbed its maximum amount of water. The key to avoiding dryness is to keep this water from evaporating from the skin into the air. It is water that moisturizes the skin. Lotions don’t do a very good job of holding this water in the skin because they are made up mostly of water with only a small amount of oil. Creams and ointments are more effective because they have a higher content of oil.
- Whenever the skin has been wet, as in step 1, you must pat the skin dry gently to avoid cuts or bruises, and allow some of the water to remain on the skin.
- Immediately coat the skin with an oil based moisturizing product, so that a layer of oil will prevent the water from evaporating. Diabetic Foot Cream and Moisturizing Skin Cream are good choices for dry winter skin.
- Protect the skin of the hands from constant exposure to water and irritating soaps. Wear gloves for all wet work such as washing dishes and house cleaning (vinyl are better than rubber). Use mild cleansers like Cetaphil, and when the hands do get wet, coat them with a layer of moisturizer before the water evaporates. Use heavy duty gloves for washing or handling sponges or washcloths, vinyl exam gloves for more delicate work, and cotton gloves to wear underneath vinyl exam gloves or to bed.
Although we think of summer as the time to protect the skin from the sun, those who enjoy winter sports such as skiing at high altitudes need to protect the exposed skin from sun and wind. Use sunscreen and moisturizer on your face and especially the lips as they can burn easily at altitude.
NOTE: Consult your doctor first to make sure my recommendations fit your special health needs.