The skin acts as a barrier. It keeps water and nutrients from escaping and, at the same time, stops foreign bodies and radiation from penetrating the body. The skin transmits sensations, helps maintain body temperature, and protects against trauma. In addition, it produces pigments and vitamins.
The skin is made of a thin layer, called the epidermis, which covers a thicker layer, called the dermis. It is constantly regenerating itself, and this process takes place at the base of the epidermis. In order to remain soft and flexible, the epidermis needs water. If epidermal humidity falls below 10 percent, the epidermis dries up and becomes fragile. Irritating substances can then penetrate the skin easily, causing swelling and chapping. Sometimes it feels itchy.
Dry skin is mostly caused by a lack of moisture rather than a lack of natural oils. The lower part of the legs, the hands, and forearms are most at risk.
Skin becomes drier with age, and some people also appear to be predisposed to dry skin. Even so, environmental conditions are mostly to blame. In the winter, the wind and the dry heat used to warm our houses contribute to dry skin. In the summer, dry skin is mostly caused by prolonged sun exposure, chlorinated water, and air conditioning. Taking too many baths or showers, especially using harsh soaps, can also cause the skin to dry, as can household cleaning products, such as soaps and disinfectants.
Dry skin is sometimes associated with more serious problems, such as dermatitis (eczema).
Prevention and treatment
Protect your skin from exposure to cold, wind, and the sun and follow these measures:
Try to reduce the frequency of baths and showers (even if it means taking sponge baths). In the winter, consider using soap only to wash your hands and areas where sweating occurs (armpits, genitalia, feet). Warm water dries your skin less than hot water.
Bath oils may be helpful as long as you stay in the water for at least 10 minutes. Gently pat your skin dry to avoid removing the oil that stayed on your skin. Be careful, oil will make your bath slippery!
Choose non-alkaline soap or soap-free cleansing lotion. White Dove™ soaps are an excellent choice. Avoid perfumed products, especially if an allergy is suspected.
Emollient creams and lotions are choice products and should be applied on moist skin immediately after a bath or shower. If you have a mild problem, these products might be enough: made with petroleum jelly, lanolin, or mineral oil, they resemble natural skin oils and trap humidity.
If your skin is very dry, use a product that also contains urea or uric acid, two substances that further trap epidermal humidity.
Keep room temperature cool (20°C is more than enough, even for a baby), and humidity level at 40 to 50 percent. If you do not have a central humidifier, use a cool-mist humidifier, as needed.
Drink liberally during the day.
If these measures are not enough to alleviate the problem, you may have allergies or a more serious problem: seek medical advice.