Winter Itch: Skin Care For Cold Weather
Do You Have "Winter Itch"?
I used to think I was allergic to cold weather. Like clockwork, every year when the temperature dropped, I would start itching. Now I realize that what I have been experiencing is known as winter itch, a condition resulting from loss of skin moisture during cold weather. If you have the urge to scratch your back on a tree trunk like Baloo, the bear in Jungle Book, you may have winter itch, too.
As Dr. Diane Berson has said, "The best thing you can do to relieve the itch is to moisturize your skin because, unfortunately, you can't do anything about the weather." (2005, November 5. "How to Relieve and Prevent 'Winter Itch'.")
Winter itch is very common and usually not too severe. Most often, this winter skin phenomenon means mild to moderate itching that is annoying and uncomfortable, but it can typically be controlled easily by taking some simple steps to overcome the causes of dry winter skin. Applying lotion is part of the solution to the cold-weather, dry-skin problem, but making changes in your environment and personal hygiene can also have a tremendous impact on your skin.
Keeping Your Indoor Environment Moist
It may sound obvious, but lack of moisture is why skin gets so dry in the winter. James Leyden, professor of dermatology University of Pennsylvania, has stated, "The lower temperatures, wind, and humidity of winter months cause the outer layer of the skin to dry out, becoming less flexible, which may cause cracking. This cracking actually increases the rate of moisture loss." (1996, December. "What's Behind Winter Itch? - Causes and Prevention of Skin Condition Winter Pruritis.")
In other words, the very air around us is drying out our skin. Relative humidity, the amount of moisture in the air, is naturally lower in the winter, and then we add to the problem by heating the indoor air and drying it out even more. Raising the humidity will not only help your skin, but you can save money because you won't need as much heat to feel comfortable. Using a humidity monitor is a good way to keep tabs and properly regulate the humidity level. If it is below 35-40%, you can introduce moisture with a humidifier or by setting out pans of water to evaporate into the air. And don't forget to check the humidity at work since you are there eight hours a day. (Don't let humidity go above 50% because that much moisture creates a friendly environment for dust mites and mold.)
Personal Care Of Your Skin
Another strange-but-true reason for winter itch is bathing - that's right, the ordinary bath or shower you take every day. People tend to take longer baths or showers in hotter water in the winter because it feels so good. Unfortunately, your skin pays for this luxury. To help your skin:
- Limit a bath or shower to no more than 15 minutes and use lukewarm instead of hot water.
- Use bath oil, or when you get out of the bath or shower, pat dry and apply moisturizer while your skin is still damp to hold in the moisture.
- Avoid harsh soaps such as deodorant soap. Look for shower gels, soaps or soap-free cleansers that contain moisturizer.
- A shower filter to remove chlorine and other chemicals from the water can be helpful.
- Only take one bath or shower a day, and arms and legs don't even need soaping every day.
Of all the body parts, hands suffer the most from excessive exposure to soap and water. I am a fanatic about washing my hands to keep from getting sick, and in the winter, my hands often get red, cracked, and painful. I find using a cream or lotion at night and sleeping in cotton gloves really helps me. Products designed for eczema or psoriasis sufferers can also be very effective for dry, chapped skin.
Another cause of dry skin and winter itch is the tendency to drink less water in winter. It is not hot and/or humid, and we just don't seem to feel as thirsty. However, we still need to drink plenty of water to keep our skin moisturized from the inside out.
In addition, build up of detergent or fabric softener in your clothing or bedding can be a contributing factor. Changing from a powder to a liquid detergent made a huge difference to me. The liquid tended to rinse out better and leave less residue. Also, avoid added dyes and fragrances that can be irritating.
Another cause that sounds obvious once you think of it is the type of clothing you wear. Some fabrics, like wool, can be scratchy and be a factor in keeping that itch-scratch cycle going. Linen can send me up the wall, too. Know what irritates your skin and avoid it. If everything irritates your skin, you might benefit from wearing specially-developed clothing as undergarments or for sleeping.
Being Outdoors In Cold Weather
Noreen Nicol MS, RN, FNP, Chief Clinical Officer at National Jewish Medical and Research Center, has said, "Don't put away the sunscreen in the winter just because the days are short and the sun is low in the sky." (2004, December 8. "Winter's Coming: Stock up on Sunscreen".) Exposure to sun can dry out your skin in addition to increasing your risk of skin cancer, so protect your skin with sunscreen in the winter as well as the summer. Cover your skin as much as possible when outdoors in cold weather - wear hats, scarves, gloves and even masks for adults or children that warm the air you breathe. Wind can also have a drying effect on skin. All those extra clothes you are going to wear to protect you from the sun can do double duty and protect you from the wind, too. And remember to keep the sensitive skin on your lips protected with a lip moisturizer, preferably one containing sunscreen.
When Skin Problems Are More Serious
Skin reactions to cold weather can take a more serious form with a more serious name, cold-induced uticaria. This condition can result in hives (raised, red, itchy swellings), and according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 25% of the U.S. population will experience cold-induced uticaria at least once in their lifetime. (2002, January 8. "Surviving Winters Itch.") Cold-induced uticaria is caused by a sudden change in temperature - either going from a heated home or office out in the cold or the other way around. In addition, winter can cause existing skin conditions like eczema to worsen. Also, dry, irritated skin is more likely to get infected. Infected skin is red, warm and swollen. If you break out in hives or suffer from severe itching or suspect a skin infection, you should seek the advice of your medical professional.