Take extra care of your skin throughout the winter months. Cold, dry weather is a common cause of dry skin.
Moving back and forth between the cold, dry air outside and the warm, dry air inside throughout the winter months can cause our skin to become dehydrated and may exacerbate some skin conditions.
Dry skin is a common skin condition, which becomes particularly more noticable with age. People with a background of atopic eczema will be more likely to have dry skin.
Environmental factors contribute to dry skin, which is usually worse in the winter months and aggravated by heating and low humidity. Use of harsh skin cleansers and alkaline soaps will also dry out the skin.
The best way to treat dry skin is to use a soap substitute, especially in winter, and to apply a moisturiser immediately after a shower or bath to lock in moisture and replace the natural oils lost. Long baths are to be discouraged as they may dry the skin out excessively. Use of a greasier moisturiser in the winter months, such as cream in a tube or a jar, rather than a runnier lotion in a pump pack, is often beneficial.
Other skin conditions that may worsen throughout winter include eczema, psoriasis and contact dermatitis.
Atopic eczema is an inflammatory skin condition, which causes the skin to be red, scaly and itchy. Eczema can appear on any part of the body but most commonly involves the flexures of the elbows and knees. It often starts in infancy and may be associated with asthma, hay fever and food allergies (atopy). There are also many other forms of eczema not related to atopy.
Atopic eczema may be aggravated by a number of factors. These include dry skin, climatic factors such as low humidity, heat, exposure to skin irritants, secondary bacterial or viral infections, allergies and stress. In some particularly warm climates, eczema may be aggravated by sweating. Skin irritants often affect the hands, and may include wet work: repetitive wetting and drying of the skin on the hands, which often has a very irritating effect. Other irritants include contact with soaps, harsh cleansers and additional occupational exposures, such as contact with oils and solvents.
Although the use of an anti-inflammatory cream or ointment may be necessary in order to settle the inflamed area, it is initially important to avoid any known aggravating factors. Dry skin must be treated with use of soap substitutes and moisturising creams, generally, the greasier the better! Becoming too hot at night, from use of doonas, may encourage scratching and cause disturbed sleep: thin layers of cotton blankers are preferable.
Fortunately, there are many treatment options ranging from topical preparations applied to the skin, physical therapy such as with ultraviolet light and, in severe cases, oral medications.
Psoriasis is a non-contagious, partly-genetic skin condition. In psoriasis, the immune system is overactive and the skin cells grow more quickly than normal, resulting in inflamed, thick and sclay areas of skin. These areas may be itchy or painful, and may bleed if scratched.
It is estimated that 2-3% of the population have psoriasis. Most commonly, psoriasis first appears in early adulthood, but can occur at any age. Psoriasis may affect different areas of the body - typically the scalp and extensor surfaces of the elbows and knees - but it may also involve the palms and soles or be generalised. Up to one third of patients with psoriasis will develop a form of associated arthritis and sometimes develop changes involving the nails.
Whilst treatment options for psoriasis vary from patient to patient, use of moisturising creams can assist in the management of particularly dry and inflamed skin and reduce itching, when this is present.
Learn more about psoriasis.
Contact dermatitis is a type of skin inflammation, which results from substances contacting the skin.
There are two forms of contact dermatitis: irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis.
Irritant contact dermatitis is the skin's reaction to a range of environmental irritants, such as water, soaps, detergents, solvents, oils, dusts and fibres. Sometimes physical factors, such as trauma, friction, heat and sweating may also play a role.
Treatment includes making a diagnosis of irritant contact dermatitis, which may involve excluding any complicating skin allergy with patch testing, as well as avoiding skin contact with irritants. Use of protective gloves is usually appropriate to minimise skin exposure to irritants, with cotton gloves worn underneath helpful to minimise sweating. Again, use of a soap substitute and moisturising creams are appropriate first-line treatments.
Allergic contact dermatitis involves a specific reaction to an individual chemical. It is said that there are approximately 100,000 chemicals, and over 4,000 have been reported to cause allergy. Not all chemicals are capable of causing an allergic reaction. The allergic reaction usually starts at the site of skin contact with the allergen. While this often affects the hands, thinner areas of skin are often typically involved, such as the eyelids or neck.
Contact dermatitis is often red, itchy and scaly, and may be hard to clinically distinguish from various forms of eczema, so it must be suspected on the basis of a history of exposure to potential allergens. It is diagnosed with patch testing, which involves reproducing exposure to allergens under controlled conditions, and takes 4-5 days. This type of testing is different from prick testing, which is used to assess immediate reactions, most often by allergists in the investigation of asthma, hay fever and food allergies. The most common allergen is nickel, which is acquired from contact with cheap jewellery. Some 15% of women are allergic to nickel.