Dry Skin Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Dry Skin

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Faculty of Medical, Clinical and Veterinary Sciences

Skin Problems

Human Skin | Dry Skin | Psoriasis | Eczema | Greasy Skin | Dandruff | Acne | Rosacea | Seborrheic Dermatitis | Skin Cancer | Non-melanoma Skin Cancer | Melanoma | Hereditary Skin Cancer | Sensible sun exposure

The skin is the largest organ of the human body. Not only does it keep our insides where they belong, it has to keep out infection and dirt - a tough enough job in itself, but the typical modern way of life inflicts even more punishment on our skin. One of the problems this can cause is dry skin. This is characterised by skin becoming dull and flaky, sometimes almost reptilian in appearance. In extreme cases, the skin can crack and bleed - in these circumstances it's best to consult a doctor just in case there's an underlying medical reason, like eczema or psoriasis, especially if there is any itching, pain or inflammation present.

Assuming there is no medical reason, the best way to tackle the problems is by eliminating the causes. As that is not always possible or practical, there are also ways to treat the skin directly.

Treating Skin from the Inside

Because all but the topmost levels of skin are living, skin condition can be a good measure of overall state of health. Illness and stress can reflect very quickly in the skin. A healthy diet will help - drink lots of plain water, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Avoid or cut down on caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee and colas), alcohol and salt, all of which can have a dehydrating effect. Cigarette smoking doesn't help either. Vitamin supplements may help some people, particularly fish oils and evening primrose or starflower oil.

The Environment

Warm air holds more moisture than cold air, so if you heat up the air without adding moisture, it sucks moisture out of your skin to compensate. Central heating is the worst culprit for this. Try turning the heating down and wearing more clothing1. Turn the heating down as low as you can in the bedroom - about one-third of your day is spent in there.

Coal gives off moisture as it burns and so dries the air less - worth trying if this is an option.

If central heating is a must, humidify the air. Plug-in gizmos are available in the shops to do this, or small magnetic pots can be bought fairly cheaply that are filled with water and stuck to the radiator. Houseplants can help a little too.

Treating Skin from the Outside

Skin wasn't made to be scrubbed clean three times a day. Every time you shower or bathe, the protection gained from the skin's natural oils is decreased. Reduce the amount of showering as much as you can bear2, or try showering just in water, without soap at all. Keeping the water cool or tepid also helps. If you live in a hard water area and have control over your water supply, fitting a water filter may help and will also reduce the amount of soap required.

Avoid bar soaps, they strip the oil from the skin. Try either very mild products like baby washes or the body washes formulated with moisturisers.

Exfoliation helps to improve the skin's appearance by removing the topmost layer of dead skin. The simplest way of doing this is by using a scrunched up netting sponge often given away free with body washes. There are also commercial body scrubs available, a good home-made alternative is to rub baby or olive oil and coarse salt into the skin before showering. Messy but effective! If you're on a beach sunbathing, use a bit of sand to slough off the flaky skin. All these methods should be used gently - making the skin sore by scrubbing too hard won't help.

For after the shower, there is a vast and baffling array of stuff you can put on your skin to help dry skin. As we are all such wonderfully unique beings, it will probably take a little trial and error to find which works best for you. It's also worth remembering that the most expensive products aren't necessarily the most effective.

The best time to apply any moisturising product is straight after a bath or shower, while the skin is still damp.

Petroleum jelly (Vaseline) and baby oil are mineral based and are not absorbed into the skin, but they do form an effective waterproof barrier to stop skin from drying out further. These are most useful for specific protection, against constant exposure to cold winds, for instance.

The choice of body lotions is vast. The are straightforward emollient lotions available from the chemist (eg E45 in the UK). Others are based upon natural plant extracts and are popular (eg Body Shop or Aveeno) and range right up to expensive products that carry claims of helping other problems like cellulitis and wrinkles.

Some people swear by vitamin E oil or gel, others use natural plant extracts without the added ingredients included in commercial lotions - aloe vera, cocoa or shea butter and oatmeal are worth trying.

Sensitivity or allergy to some of the ingredients in skin care products is relatively common, especially to lanolin and perfumes. If a rash or itching occurs after using a new product, it's safest to stop using it. It's also an idea to only try one new thing at a time - if the skin does react it's easier to identify the culprit. Those with previously known allergies are most at risk.

1Which will also help reduce global warming and heating bills.2A good deodorant helps here!

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