Along with other changes you may experience, as you get older, skin becomes thinner and drier. In fact, many older people have dry skin, often on their lower legs, elbows and lower arms. Dry skin also can be caused by health problems, such as diabetes or kidney disease.
In winter, dry skin can get worse—both drier and itchier, especially if you don’t drink enough liquids and don’t protect exposed skin when you go outdoors in very dry air or if the air in your home lacks humidity.
If you have thin skin, dryness can be especially dangerous—scratching dry skin can cause bleeding that may lead to infection. Since some medications can make your skin itchier, talk to your doctor if your skin tends to be very dry and itchy often.
Changing some common habits can restore the health of your skin and protect against dryness and its negative health consequences. No need to wait for the deep freeze to set in—here are simple steps you can start taking right away:
- Rethink water temperature. When bathing or even just washing hands, start using warm water rather than hot water. Hot water removes your natural skin oils more quickly. Warm water is better because it’s less drying.
- Use a gentle cleanser. Like hot water, soap and detergent-based cleansers can strip oils from the skin (that’s why wearing rubber gloves to protect the skin of your hands is often suggested when doing dishes). Avoid deodorant bars and perfumed soaps. Try a mild, fragrance-free bodywash; one that moisturizes is even better.
- Limit the length of baths and showers. While a long, hot soak may make weary bones feel better, longer water exposure can actually be counter-productive. A 5- to 10-minute bath or shower adds moisture to the skin—but any more than that and your skin can end up less hydrated. Try not to shower or bathe more than once a day (with strategic cleansing between showers, you might be able to get by with fewer of them). The same limits apply to your face. If you have very dry skin, cleanse your face just once a day, at night. In the morning, rinse your face with cool water and pat on moisturizer right away.
- Apply a rich moisturizer while skin is still damp. This is how to lock in the moisture your skin picked up in the bath or shower, and remember that the thicker the product—creams and ointments rather than a thin lotion—the more it will soothe dry, itchy skin. For safety reasons, resist putting oils in your bathwater because it will make the tub too slippery and could lead to an accident.
- Counteract dry air with a humidifier. Keep the air in your home moist with a humidifier, an appliance that adds moisture to a room. Be sure to follow manufacturer’s guidelines to clean it regularly to avoid the growth of mold and bacteria.
- Soothe chapped skin when you see the first sign. Chapped skin will get worse if untreated, especially on the lips. Apply a rich lip balm with a petroleum jelly or mineral oil base. Keep in mind that what not to do is just as important: Don’t lick your lips to soften them—that will backfire and dry them out further.
- Cover up outdoors. Cold, wind and dry air can quickly chap skin. Wear a scarf around the lower half of your face and don’t forget your gloves to help prevent chapped hands.