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Originally published Monday, January 31, 2011 at 7:07 PM

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Banish winter's dry skin woes

Expert tips to prevent "winter itch."

The Dallas Morning News

Got dry skin, cracked lips and itchy feet?

Blame part of that on winter. Like a water-sucking vampire, the drop in humidity that marks this season in many areas can drain moisture from the skin.

But give blame, too, to the way we handle the change in weather.

Too often, experts say, we do the exact opposite of what we should — exacerbating the dryness by turning up the heat in the home and the car, using electric blankets and space heaters, soaking in a hot tub or taking a long, hot showers.

Doctors say this is the time of year when they see a lot of "winter itch" — another name for eczema, or red, dry, scaly or itchy skin. The problem can be particularly acute among newcomers to areas like Texas who have not yet adjusted to the lower humidity, and seniors, where the problem is exacerbated by the lessening of natural oils and skin cell regeneration that ensue as we age.

To understand how to protect the skin, Dr. Mark Thieberg, a dermatologist at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, Texas, says it's important to understand how our skin protects us.

Healthy, moisturized skin provides a barrier that can provide the first wall of defense against the dangers of our world — abrasion, germs, heat and cold. At the same time, this tough outer layer, the epidermis, has a vulnerable side. It's intricately intertwined with the underlying dermis with its sensitive nerve endings that warn us about heat, cold, pressure and pain and the sweat glands that help us regulate our body temperature.

Thieberg says that the biggest medical concern about dry skin is that it can crack, leaving the body open and vulnerable to secondary as well as potentially life-threatening viral and bacterial infections. If the skin cracks, he advises patients to treat it with an antibiotic ointment, and then moisturize to help it heal.

Experts generally agree on a few main principles of winter skin care:

Turn down the heat; it's better to warm up with an extra sweater or extra blanket.

Take shorter and more tepid showers or baths. Yes, even though dry skin craves moisture, pelting the body with hot water is a big no-no, says Dr. Stanferd Kusch, a dermatologist on the medical staff at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano.

"Keep your showers as short as possible, and avoid saunas and hot tubs as well," he says.

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Instead, follow up a short, lukewarm shower or bath with a moisturizer to restore the protective layer of natural skin oils that water and soap can strip away.

Other experts advise using a soapless cleanser or a gentle soap that's free of fragrance, deodorant or antibacterial additives, as these are drying. Towel off gently instead of rubbing your skin.

Lather on moisturizer after you bathe and continue to moisturize throughout the day, particularly after washing hands. The most effective moisturizers are not necessarily the most expensive, but they are usually petroleum-based or contain ceramides or fatty acids.

Put balm on your lips and don't lick them because saliva irritates the skin. If you wear lipstick, which can be drying, it's especially important to put on balm underneath.

Other sources of drying agents to monitor: allergy medications that dry up sinus and nasal passages because they can also dry up your skin; fragrances, bath bubbles, toners, peels and astringents that contain alcohol; shaving, which can scrape off natural oils along with your hair. When you shave, use a shaving cream or gel, shave in the direction the hair is growing and shave when the skin is wet and pliable, preferably after bathing.

The popular new microfibers that many wear in the winter to wick moisture away from the skin can have a drying effect as well, doctors say. Consider cotton clothing instead.

Medical solutions range from an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine as needed for the itching that can result from mild eczema to topical prescription steroid cream for more serious cases.

Some doctors have their own innovative solutions, too.

Dr. Daniel Pham, a family physician at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine, Texas, and a dad of four, fills the bathroom sinks with hot water in the evening, adds a scent his family likes and lets the water stand overnight as natural humidifiers. He waters his many houseplants generously and puts wet towels out to dry overnight over bedroom furniture rather than putting them in the dryer, letting the air absorb the moisture.

Dr. Mary Hurley, a dermatologist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and a mother of five, said she believes that fish oil supplements with omega three can prove helpful to the skin. And with a couple of her children having a tendency toward winter eczema, she will also, as needed, apply moisturizer on their feet and hands and accelerate its penetration into the skin by wrapping the moisturized hands and feet with cellophane wrap and putting cotton socks over the feet and cotton gloves on the hands overnight.

Dr. Karyn Grossman, of Grossman Dermatology and chief in the division of Dermatology at St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica, writes about skin for WebMD. She says it's also important to check in with a doctor if you develop dry skin for the first time even if it is in winter, because there is always the possibility that there could be a health issue such as a low thyroid or hormonal changes causing the problem. Diabetics should be carefully monitored in winter, too, as they are at a particular risk for both dry skin because of poor circulation and infections that can occur if the skin cracks.

And while Grossman agrees that long showers and baths are not a good idea for dry skin, she also believes exceptions can be made.

"If you have sore, tired muscles, a warm bath with some Epsom salts can make you feel better," she says, noting that she still urges patients to forego bubble powders. "Just make sure when you get out of the tub to hydrate with moisturizer."

Long hot showers and heating can make dry skin worse, experts say. Here's how to combat "winter itch."

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