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7 winter skin questions answered

4 Feb 2021

If you get itchy skin, red patches or eczema flare-ups in the cold weather, there are simple solutions that can help. Livi GP Dr Vasiliki Vanky answers your winter skin questions

Quick facts

  • Wearing a high SPF can help protect your skin against windburn and damaging UVA rays
  • The thicker the moisturiser, the more protection it provides
  • Warm showers or baths instead of hot ones help prevent dry skin

Winter brings double trouble for our skin. The combination of low humidity outside and central heating inside increases the risk of dryness, itchiness and other irritations and flare-ups. Dr Vasiliki Vanky, a Livi GP, provides solutions to some of your most common winter skin issues.

How can I help prevent dry skin in winter?

Start by getting an understanding of your skin’s structure. The outer layer, known as the epidermis, is made up of tiny cells, called keratinocytes, which are constantly dying and being replaced. These cells overlap, like the tiles on a roof, and are glued together with an oily substance known as sebum. This provides a protective barrier which keeps moisture in, and irritants and allergens out.

If these ‘tiles’ become damaged or dislodged, the skin loses moisture which leads to dryness and irritation. So, maintaining this protective layer is the key to preventing most of our common winter skin problems.

You can help to maintain your skin by…

  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Using a humidifier or bowls of water around the house to increase indoor humidity
  • Applying a moisturiser immediately after your shower or bath
  • Using a hand cream after washing your hands
  • Wearing gloves outside
  • Minimising smoking and alcohol as both dry the skin

You don’t need to spend a fortune on moisturisers. Just because a cream is more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better than cheaper ones, says Dr Vanky. Speak to a pharmacist for further guidance.

What can I do about itchy skin?

Avoid scratching, as this only adds to the damage and it could introduce a bacterial infection from your hands.

Any fragrance-free moisturiser will reduce the itching. But emollients — such as petroleum jelly or paraffin-based creams — are particularly useful as they are greasy and restore the skin’s waterproof barrier.

‘The terms emollient and moisturiser can be confusing and there’s not an agreed medical definition,’ says Dr Vanky. ‘In simple terms both are moisturising, but emollients tend to be greasier and thicker while moisturisers can include quite liquid lotions.

‘If you’re using emollients several times a day for a few weeks and it’s not helping, see a doctor as you may need a cortisone cream,’ says Dr Vanky.

Talk to a doctor if you have recurrent or severe problems or your symptoms don’t improve after 7 to 14 days of treatment at home.

Am I over-washing my skin?

Excessive washing, particularly with hot water and detergent-based products, depletes the sebum and natural oils which hold the cells on the skin’s outer layer in place. That’s why over-washing can damage your skin’s protective barrier leaving it dry and irritated.

To maximise the moisture in your skin, limit your shower or bath to 5 or 10 minutes. Use warm water rather than hot, and only enough fragrance-free cleanser (fragrance in body washes and soaps can dry out and irritate your skin) to remove dirt and grime without creating a thick lather.

How are dry air and central heating affecting my skin?

Central heating reduces humidity in the air which damages the skin’s barrier and can lead to dry, itchy skin. Going from cold, dry air outside to warm dry air inside only adds to the problem.

Some people find humidifiers help, because they put moisture back into the air and increase relative humidity. But there is no clear evidence they reduce skin dryness and they can increase levels of irritant dust mites. If you want to try it, putting a bowl of water into each room will have much the same effect without the cost.

Why do I get red, itchy skin patches in winter?

Cold temperatures outside and heating inside lead to dryness and then repeatedly rubbing and scratching your skin can result in thickened, often red patches. This is most common in hands and feet and can lead to painful cracking.

Some studies also suggest low temperatures and low humidity increase inflammation in your skin, potentially making it more reactive to irritants and allergens.

If using moisturiser doesn’t clear up these patches, you may need to use a cortisone cream for up to 15 days. These are available over-the-counter from pharmacies or on prescription.

How can I stop my eczema flaring up in winter?

Cold, dry weather increases the risk of flare-ups of atopic dermatitis, which is the most common form of eczema and also of asteatotic eczema, which is more prevalent as we get older and characterised by inflamed, cracked skin.

Dr Vanky says, ‘The best way to avoid dry skin and eczema is to use moisturising creams every day.’

If you have been doing that and your eczema is persisting, talk to a Livi doctor who can assess what your skin condition needs.

How do I protect my skin from windburn?

Wind dries the skin, which can lead to roughness and tiny cracks. This accelerates the loss of natural moisturisers and reduces the skin’s elasticity. It also accelerates shedding of damaged skin cells — and with them, any sunscreen or moisturiser you have applied. Over time, this combination of wind and sun damage accelerates skin’s ageing.

You can help prevent problems by wearing protective clothing and using a rich emollient sunscreen when you’re going out on windy days (even if there is no obvious sun, UVA rays can still damage your skin). It’s also important to reapply emollient sunscreens to fully reap the benefits.

This piece has been medically approved by Dr Vasiliki Vanky, Livi GP.

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