The 3 Best Products to Treat Dry Skin and 3 to Avoid
During the winter months, people regularly ask me questions about dry, itchy skin.
“Winter itch,” medically termed xerosis cutis, has many possible causes. Most cases of dry skin occur when the skin loses moisture because of the dry winter climate. Mild cases of dry skin consist of flaking and scaling. More severe cases can cause painful fissures, severe itching, thickening of the skin and even scarring.
Although there is no cure for xerosis, most symptoms can be alleviated with over-the-counter products. With so many different skincare products available on the market, it can be quite confusing to decide on the best one for you.
Key ingredients to look for in skincare products
Ceramides. Ceramides are lipids that help form a barrier to keep our skin hydrated. We often lose ceramides in our skin as we age and people with a history of eczema may have lower baseline levels of ceramides in the skin. When combined with dry, cool weather, decreased ceramides contribute to the development of dry skin.
Creams containing ceramides are great for treating winter skin because they can help replenish the ones lost, and help rehydrate the skin. There are several affordable creams containing ceramides on the market right now that are available in most local stores.
Hydroxy acids. Ammonium lactate and salicylic acid, which are an alpha hydroxy acid and a beta hydroxy acid respectively, are common hydroxy acids found in moisturizer creams and lotions. Ammonium lactate is an alpha hydroxy acid and salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid respectively.
Hydroxy acid moisturizers improve the symptoms of xerosis because they gently exfoliate and remove dry, flaky skin cells. When mixed with emollient moisturizers, moisturizers that soften or soothe the skin, hydroxy acids treat and prevent the visible signs of winter skin.
However, applying hydroxy acids to fissured or wounded skin can sting, so make sure to avoid any open areas during application.
Hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid moisturizers can help to plump the skin due to its unique water attracting capabilities. These elegant moisturizers can be found as serums, lotions, and creams and are good to use on the face and body.
Carbohydrate molecules are hygroscopic, meaning they attract water, and are naturally found in the skin. They also allow the epidermis to stay hydrated. In the skin, hyaluronic acid also functions in wound healing and anti-oxidant effects. Additionally, hyaluronic acid is the main component of some dermal fillers.
Products to avoid if you have dry skin
Anti-bacterial soaps or cleansers. These can be quite harsh for people that have dry skin and can often lead to further irritation.
Fragrance. Products containing fragrance should also be avoided, as they can irritate the skin and trigger contact dermatitis. Beware of products that are marked as “unscented” because they may contain a masking fragrance. Look for products that state “fragrance free.”
Exfoliators. Overzealous exfoliation, in the form of tools or beaded scrub products, can often lead to raw or irritated skin. The goal of treatment is to restore the skin barrier, not strip it away.
How to apply face moisturizers
The best time to apply moisturizers is after you get out of the bath or shower, while your skin is still damp and dewy. The moisturizers can more easily be absorbed through the skin and help to lock in hydration.
For people with very dry skin or eczema, I recommend reapplying moisturizer at least once throughout the day. Baths should be lukewarm and less than 5 minutes, since extended baths and showers will also dry out the skin.
You may find it helpful to talk to a board-certified dermatologist if you are experiencing very dry, painful or itchy skin and moisturizing products do not help alleviate symptoms.
When our skin is dry, it's not an effective barrier to the outside world. Dry skin is more prone to both infections and allergic reactions. If you develop redness, pustules, weeping, or sudden worsening of your skin, see your dermatologist to rule out an infection or allergic reaction.
Editor's note: This blog was originally published in 2015 and has since been updated.