Dry Skin

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.


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.

What Causes This

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.

Healing Alternatives

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.

Spiritual and Holistic Options

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:

  1. Switch from bubble bath to essential oils: Bubble bath products contain detergents, which can be drying to the skin. Bathing with essential oils can be just a pleasant and relaxing. Make sure that your bath water is not too hot and do not soak for more than 25 minutes. When you get out of the bath, simply pat your skin with a towel. This will leave a fine film of oil on the skin to hydrate, soften and prevent cracking. Remember to place a non-slip mat in the bathtub when using oils to reduce your risk of slipping. You may also enjoy Aveeno’s Moisturizing Oatmeal Bath and Colloidal Oatmeal Skin Cream. These are very soothing because of the emollient properties of oatmeal.
  2. Use soap substitutes: Soaps and other detergents can be irritating to dry skin. Switch to emollient soaps or washes. These will feel different on your skin, as they do not foam; they are highly effective cleansers, however, and will leave your skin feeling softer.
  3. Use emollients regularly: Applying your favorite lotion or cream even when your skin does not feel dry will help prevent it from drying out.
  4. Wear natural fabrics: Smooth, natural fabrics will feel best against your dry skin. One exception may be wool, which can irritate some skin.
  5. Use rubber gloves: It is a good idea to avoid too much water, as well as cleaning agents, detergents and chemicals. When you are cleaning your house, be sure to use rubber gloves to protect your hands. A positive “side effect” is that your hands will start to look younger almost immediately!
  6. Change your birth control: Birth control pills may stop sebum production, which is why they are often prescribed as a treatment for acne. If you think the pill is making your dry skin worse, you may want to discuss other options for birth control with your doctor.
  7. Develop a good skin care regimen: Use the appropriate products for your skin. Make sure to cleanse and moisturize for your skin type and switch to less drying cleansers and heavier moisturizers during the winter months.
  8. Get enough omega-3 fatty acids: Eat a low-glycemic, insulin-lowering diet like the one I recommend in The Wisdom of Menopause, or try the three-day spa diet recommended by Nicholas Perricone, MD in his book, The Perricone Prescription. This may be all some women need to get their skin back in balance. Include a lot of fatty fish, such as tuna, sardines, and salmon in your diet. This can help regulate your skin’s fat and moisture requirements. If you can’t get enough fish, ground flax seed or flaxseed oil as well as essential fatty acid supplements also work well.
  9. Avoid caffeine and drink water: Caffeine can dehydrate the skin. Instead, replace caffeinated drinks with pure water. Try to drink 8–10 glasses per day.

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.

Learn More — Additional Resources

Last Updated: October 5, 2006

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.

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