By Linda Vo, Program Evaluator, U.S. Army Public Health CommandSeptember 4, 2012
Do you have the sort of dry, itchy skin that makes you feel like you're infested with fleas, that keeps you awake at night and miserably raking your skin with a back scratcher?
If the itching weren't bad enough, a dry skin problem can be more than just a superficial issue. You could be giving all sorts of bacteria a way in that can lead to more serious problems. Let's put down the back scratcher and figure out what's really causes dry skin.
Dry skin is a common condition that can be annoying, uncomfortable and sometimes painful when left untreated. It can result in itching and scratching or roughness and/or red patches, which can be unattractive and bothersome. In worse cases, dry skin can lead to skin diseases (for example, eczema), severe inflammations of the hair follicles (folliculitis) and skin tissues (cellulites), or even infections when the skin is broken by excessive scratching.
What causes dry skin?
Healthy normal skin has a thin layer of natural fatty substances that lock in moisture, leaving the skin soft and supple. Dry skin is a condition where these fatty oils are deficient, damaged or stripped away, and skin loses its moisture. Soldiers are most likely to experience dry skin when they are exposed to extreme weather conditions.
The following environmental exposures generally cause dry skin:
• During low humidity, cold harsh weather or dry hot weather, dry air draws the moisture out of the skin.
• Prolonged exposures, such as taking too many or too long showers or baths, can wash away the skin's natural fatty oils. Also, the evaporation of the water after taking long, hot showers or baths causes the skin to dry.
• The use of harsh soap or chemical cleansers, the overuse of sanitizers and cleaning agents such as rubbing alcohol, or rigorous scrubbing of the skin can strip away the skin's natural fatty oils.
In addition, dry skin can be a side effect of certain medications or be a symptom for a variety of medical conditions, such as heatstroke, diabetes, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, allergies, infections, hypertension or high cholesterol. The lack of essential nutrients (malnutrition) or dehydration can also deprive the skin of healthy normal skin substances. Also, poor blood circulation can decrease the proper nourishment of skin.
How to care for and prevent dry skin?
Immediate short-term skin care practices to reduce dry skin include:
• Apply moisturizer or an oily substance (such as petroleum jelly) when the skin is damp (for example, after showers).
• Use more mild moisturizers with no perfumes or alcohol.
• Use lukewarm water for washing instead of hot water.
• Decrease the number of showers or baths.
• Avoid rigorous scrubbing of the skin.
• Turn down the thermostat in the winter to reduce the dry air caused by the heat.
• Wear thin cotton gloves after moisturizing your hands when going to bed.
• Bundle up in the winter to protect the skin from cold air.
• Use a humidifier to increase the moisture in the air.
For long-term care and prevention of dry skin, follow these practices:
• Eat healthy, balanced meals to ensure sufficient intake of essential nutrients, particularly fatty acids such as omega-3 that can be found in flax, salmon, sardines and walnuts.
• Drink sufficient amount of water (at least 64 ounces a day) to stay hydrated.
• Engage in regular physical activities.