Dry skin is a very common problem for many women at midlife and beyond, and most women will suffer from dry skin at some point. Others may have a chronic or hereditary condition that causes dry skin, such as eczema, psoriasis, or contact dermatitis. Whatever the cause of your dry skin, there are many steps you can take to help yourself feel better.
Healthy skin stays moist and supple because the sebaceous glands release sebum. Sebum, along with other natural oils called lipids and natural moisturizing factors (NMFs), form the hydro-lipid system which serves as the skin’s natural defense against foreign substances that can cause moisture loss. Our skin generally becomes drier as we age because our body’s production of the natural oils needed to keep moisture in diminishes with age.
Some people may inherit a predisposition toward dry skin. For most of us, however, external factors such as wind, cold, dry weather, harsh detergents, too much sun, and central heating and cooling systems contribute greatly. Most of these factors are more harmful when the skin is already dry, so it is a good idea to take care of your skin year round and avoid dry skin from the start.
In general, emollients are the first line of treatment for dry skin, and for the symptoms associated with eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. Emollients work to restore moisture by trapping water in the skin and creating a barrier on the skin’s surface to prevent further water loss.
Emollients come in ointments, creams and lotions, as well as oils and soaps. If you experience flaky, itchy skin only occasionally, you may just need to use a moisturizing lotion or cream whenever your skin starts to feel dry. The best time to moisturize is immediately after bathing, while the skin is still damp. After you bathe, pat your skin with a towel and apply moisturizer to damp skin. Usually, the best moisturizer for you is one that you like, because you will use it more often.
Because your hands are more frequently exposed to the elements than the rest of your skin’s surface, it is a good idea to keep hand cream readily available. You can carry it in your purse, and leave some in your desk, by your kitchen sink, even in your car. If you use progesterone cream, this can be a good way to moisturize your hands once or twice a day.
If you have more persistent dryness in the winter and do not know which lotion or cream is best for you, ask a pharmacist or your dermatologist about the ingredients you should look for and avoid, or which brands they recommend.
Petrolatum, an ingredient in many lotions, creams and ointments, is an excellent moisturizer. Shea butter is another great one. You may also want to try products that include vitamins C and E, aloe vera, alpha lipoic acid, DMAE, or olive oil polyphenols.
You may also want to consider a product that contains alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA). AHAs "normalize" the skin, whether it is dry or oily. They work by dissolving the "glue" that holds the dead skin cells together so that new, plumper cells can rise to the surface. This allows for increased hydration. An added benefit of AHAs is that they encourage the repair of elastin and collagen. Look for products containing 5–12% acid. If your skin is sensitive, make sure that you do a patch test. Start with a lower percentage of acid and work upward to 10 or 12% gradually. It usually takes about two weeks to notice changes, and you may experience some slight tingling until you get used to the product.
Other ingredients to look for are urea, lactic acid, glycolic acid and ammonium lactate. Many moisturizers contain these. They work to reduce scaling and help the skin hold water. These can be very effective for some people, but can be irritating to others.
If your dry skin does not respond to moisturizers alone, you may have to take some additional steps to curb your dry skin problem. Here are a few ideas you may want to try:
If your dry skin continues to be a problem, consult your dermatologist, especially if you have severe flaky, itchy or cracked skin. This may be a sign of a more serious problem. And, if other people in your family have problem skin, it’s a good idea to have a dermatologist check you.