Winter can be a cruel season in Minnesota.
One of its inescapable brutalities is directed at our skin. Cold air (or cold air that’s been warmed in a furnace) is dry air — it holds much less moisture than natural warm air.
And dry air treats human skin the same way it treats everything else — it sucks out the water. Rugs become electrified, plants require more water and the skin itches and scales.
The skin of older adults suffers more, since it has lost much of its ability to produce natural, protective, lubricating oils.
Add water to the air
If you experience an itch-all-over feeling this winter, the most likely cause is dry skin.
The itch from dry skin can be mild and intermittent, but it’s often a major and persisting nuisance.
It’s almost always worse at night and will awaken a person with the irresistible urge to scratch. Scratching soothes the itch for about 30 seconds, but the scratch inflames the skin and leads to even worse itching.
It’s much easier to prevent the problem of dry skin than it is to treat it after the itching, scaling and redness have started to drive the victim crazy.
Get out the humidifier. Not a pan on the stove, but a real humidifier. Keep it clean and keep it filled. Your skin will like the humidified air, but the humidity will also help your sinuses, throat and respiratory passages.
Choosing the right kind of humidifier can be a challenge. Ultrasonic devices are small, very portable, quiet and inexpensive; but they’re best used to humidify a small area, such as a bedroom.
Larger humidifiers are evaporative in type and can push out several gallons of water in 24 hours. Their disadvantage is cost, size, lack of portability and (sometimes) difficulty in filling with water.
Whether ultrasonic or evaporative, a humidifier can help solve the dry-air problem.
Modify daily routines
Another means of preventing dry skin is to take baths rather than showers. Both baths and showers promote dryness and irritation of the skin, but baths are less problematic.
Use a tablespoon of oil in the bath water, soak for 10 minutes or less, be stingy with the soap and don’t use an abrasive wash cloth. Soap and use of a wash cloth remove oil from the skin, inviting further drying and inflammation. Soaking in a tub for 10 minutes with minimal use of soap or non-soap cleanser will leave you clean.
If you must shower, keep it brief.
A jug of moisturizing lotion should become a best friend during the winter months. Apply the lotion (for example, Wondra, Lubriderm or Keri) once or twice a day.
Avoid cheap, smelly concoctions, and be generous with the application. Apply 1 percent hydrocortisone cream (available without a physician’s prescription) if dryness has produced patches of flaky and reddened skin.
Dr. Michael Spilane, now retired, spent more than four decades practicing and teaching geriatric medicine in St. Paul. Send comments or questions to [email protected].