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Preventing Dry Skin
Written By : Bruce Kaler, MD 
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Dry skin is one of the most frustrating common problems in winter but affects many people year round. 75% of people over 65 years of age complain of chronic dry skin. Anyone who is active in sports, exercises regularly or participates in winter outdoor activities usually struggles with dry itching skin. Understanding what irritates the skin can help alleviate the problem.

Normal skin oils provide a thin layer on the surface to retain moisture keeping the skin smooth and supple. Many things like dry air, wind, sun, bathing and hand washing can strip the skin of its natural oils leading to excessive dryness. Dry skin is itchy skin!

The first step is prevention. Using sunscreen year round can help. Soaps can irritate the skin and obviously strip the natural oil from the surface. Excessively hot water for hand washing or showering only magnifies the problem. Using more lukewarm water, taking a shorter shower and using milder soaps that are fragrance-free can be a big step to alleviating dry skin. The best time to moisturize is right after the shower while the skin is still moist. Towel dry first, then apply a bland moisturizing lotion or cream. Usually the cheapest fragrance-free product is best. A number of ingredients in common moisturizing products either seal in moisture to protect from excessive dryness or try to extract moisture from the air to retain more moisture for the skin. Again they are best used while the skin is well hydrated before it becomes dry to trap the existing moisture in the skin. Be wary of the high priced products that have very seductive ads. They are typically no better than the basic cheaper products.

Another common mistake is the effects of scrubbing too hard. Most of us don't get that dirty during our daily activities. Young children actively playing outside or adults in a very dirty line of work aside, gentle attention to cleaning ourselves with water and a bland soap is all that is necessary. The role of the soap is solely to loosen the oils, grime, and bacteria, so it can be removed easily by the mechanical action of rubbing and rinsing with water. The antibacterial effect of hand and body soaps is highly overrated. Rubbing your hands vigorously with a paper towel to dry is akin to using fine sand paper on them. The dryness, redness and cracking that follow can be problematic. Blotting the moisture gently with paper towels can make a big difference to reduce the abuse to your hands.

There are some common skin conditions that present as dry skin but are more extensive and challenging to manage. Even some medications can exacerbate dryness and itching. Seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, some fungal infections and even allergic skin conditions can lead to prolonged dry itchy skin. You should definitely consult your health care provider if your dry skin does not respond to some basic efforts to manage the itching or seems to be spreading to wider areas of the body.

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