How to moisturize your skin

Ever-growing array of products to moisturize your skin increasing ways to treat dry skin

Dry skin occurs when skin doesn't retain sufficient moisture. This can happen as a result of frequent bathing, use of harsh soaps, aging, or certain medical conditions. And for those in colder climates, it can stem from cold, dry winter air.

However, you don't have to accept rough, flaking skin as a foregone consequence of aging or the climate; there are a number of ways to treat dry skin. Moisturizers are at the top of the list. "Think of moisturizers as putting a barrier between your skin and the cold, dry air," says Dr. Kenneth Arndt, professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Arndt is the faculty editor for the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report Skin Care and Repair.

The ingredients that can moisturize your skin

Moisturizers, which rehydrate the top layer of skin cells and seal in the water, are one of the best ways to treat dry skin. They contain three main types of ingredients:

  1. Humectants. These substances help attract moisture. They include ceramides (pronounced ser-A-mids), glycerin, sorbitol, hyaluronic acid, and lecithin.
  2. Occlusives. These ingredients —including petrolatum (petroleum jelly), silicone, lanolin, and various oils—help seal moisture within the skin.
  3. Emollients. These products contain oil, water, and an emulsifier to keep the two from separating. They are lighter and easier to apply than petrolatum or oils. Many commercial moisturizers contain both an emollient and a humectant, such as linoleic, linolenic, and lauric acids.

In general, the thicker and greasier a product, the more effectively it will moisturize your skin. Some of the most effective and least expensive are petroleum jelly and its vegetable-based alternatives, and moisturizing oils, including vegetable oils. Because they contain no water, they're best used while the skin is still damp from bathing, to seal in the moisture.

Lotions designed to moisturize your skin contain water as well as oil, in varying proportions. They usually include both humectants and emollients and can be applied to skin throughout the day.

What else can you do to moisturize your skin?

Moisturizers are the first, but not the only ways to treat dry skin. It can also help to do the following:

  • Use a humidifier in the winter. Set it to around 60%, a level that should be sufficient to moisturize your skin.
  • Keep showers short. Limit yourself to one 5- to 10-minute bath or shower daily. If you bathe more than that, you may strip away much of the skin's oily layer and cause it to lose moisture. Use lukewarm rather than hot water, which can wash away natural oils.
  • Minimize your use of soaps. Consider soap-free cleansers. Steer clear of deodorant soaps, perfumed soaps, and alcohol products, which can strip away natural oils. Use fragrance-free laundry detergents and avoid fabric softeners, too.
  • Be gentle to your skin. Stay away from bath sponges, scrub brushes, and rough washcloths. For the same reason, pat or blot (don't rub) the skin when toweling dry.
  • Don't scratch. Most of the time, a moisturizer can control the itch. You can also use a cold pack or compress to relieve itchy spots.
  • Prune your wardrobe. If you find that clothing containing wool, acrylics, or other fabrics irritates your skin, give those garments away.

By Beverly Merz
Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

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