Moisturizers: Do they work?
The great outdoors may be cold and wet during the winter, but inside we live in desert-like conditions. Winter heating creates bone-dry air. Water evaporates quickly out of the skin in such parched circumstances. Dry skin by itself isn't a medical worry, although serious cases can result in cracks and fissures that invite infection and inflammation. The real issue is discomfort. There's also the red, rough, scaly appearance lamented in many advertisements.
This is one problem that hasn't suffered from lack of attention: there are dozens of creams and lotions for dry skin. They are sold as moisturizers, which is more of a marketing term than a medical or scientific one. Indeed, routine skin care is a realm where there's little science to be found. Well-controlled studies of ingredients are few and far between. Companies keep information about ingredients proprietary and are careful to limit claims for what the products do to stay within FDA rules.
But salespeople learned ages ago that science sells, so labels and ads often use scientific terms. Moisturizers are often billed as hypoallergenic or "allergy tested" — even though there's no government standard for making such a claim, so any product can do so. Some products brag about being noncomedogenic — an impressive word that means they won't cause pimples — but that's not saying much: almost all moisturizers on the market today use ingredients that are noncomedogenic. Lists of vitamins are supposed to get us thinking that moisturizers can nourish skin or stoke it full of antioxidants. Yet in most cases vitamins in moisturizers probably don't make much difference, either because the amounts used are too small to have much effect, or because the vitamins degrade with exposure to light and oxygen.
The fact is that despite the long lists of obscure ingredients and the pseudoscientific hokum, all moisturizers help with dry skin for a pretty simple reason: they supply a little bit of water to the skin and contain a greasy substance that holds it in. In fact, if greasiness weren't a problem, we might all go back to using the solution for dry skin that our grandparents used: 100% white petrolatum, which most of us know as Vaseline. One reason for the proliferation of moisturizers is the continuing search for a mix of ingredients that holds in water like petrolatum but feels nicer on the skin.
The good news is that despite all the unknowns and salesmanship, you really can't go very wrong. Almost all the moisturizers on the market will help with dry skin, and in most cases, the choice comes down to subjective experience — and simply whether you like the feel and smell.
6 tips for those with dry skin
Turn down the thermostat. Hot air tends to be drier than cooler air.
Use a humidifier. Humidifiers can help. The problem is that moisture may be soaked up in walls and furniture or disperse rapidly, depending on how airtight your home is.
Take warm, not hot, baths and showers. Hot water whisks away the fatty substances in the skin that help it retain water. Some doctors recommend bath oils. You can also use bath oil as a post-bath moisturizer by rubbing yourself down with a teaspoon of it diluted in a couple cups of warm water.
Use a mild soap. Dove is a familiar brand. Cleansers like Cetaphil are an alternative to soap.
Wear loose clothing. Clothing that binds and rubs can dry out skin.
Stay protected. Cold, windy air is very drying, so bundle up and wear warm mittens or gloves to protect your hands.
March 2008 update