Harvard Women's Health Watch

What to do about dry skin in winter

At this time of year, hands may be red, rough, and raw, and skin may feel itchy and uncomfortable.

Dry skin occurs when skin doesn't retain sufficient moisture — for example, because of frequent bathing, use of harsh soaps, aging, or certain medical conditions. Wintertime poses a special problem because humidity is low both outdoors and indoors, and the water content of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) tends to reflect the level of humidity around it. Fortunately, there are many simple and inexpensive things you can do to relieve winter dry skin, also known as winter itch or winter xerosis.

Keeping moisture in the skin

Think of the epidermal skin cells as an arrangement of roof shingles held together by a lipid-rich "glue" that keeps the skin cells flat, smooth, and in place. (See "Anatomy of the skin.") Water loss accelerates when the glue is loosened by sun damage, over-cleansing, scrubbing, or underlying medical conditions — or by winter's low humidity and the drying effects of indoor heat. The result is roughness, flaking, itching, cracking, and sometimes a burning sensation.

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