Dryness Isn’t Just Skin Deep

You can keep your skin supple naturally
despite winter’s chilly winds.

January 2009

Unlike a lot of other folks, you aren’t one to hibernate in the winter. Skiing, sledding and long walks on winter beaches are all your idea of heaven. There’s just one hitch—well, itch: that dry, tight way your skin feels at what is otherwise your favorite time of year.

You’re not alone. “Any time you talk to a dermatologist, they’ll say that 90% of the people who walk through the door complain of dry skin,” says holistic skincare expert Linda Miles, LAc, DOM, of Simi Valley, California, a member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. While winter’s winds and low humidity are the most obvious culprits, the dryness produced by indoor heating—or, conversely, by air conditioning in hot weather—is another external factor in the development of dry, uncomfortable skin.

Two Climates
The environment is only one reason skin dries out; the body’s own internal climate is the other. “Dry skin rarely happens in a vacuum,” says Kat James, author of The Truth About Beauty (Beyond Words). “It is almost always the result of malnutrition, digestive or liver issues, prescription drug side effects or bad product regimens.”

If a connection between the liver and the skin seems far-fetched, keep in mind that your pelt is actually the largest organ in your body. While its three layers certainly provide a barrier against the outside world, they do so much more: regulating temperature, removing waste, enhancing immunity, even creating vitamin D. So excessive dryness, especially without an obvious external cause, means more than just a bad case of the itchies. “When skin isn’t performing at its optimal level, its functions aren’t working at their maximum levels,” Miles warns.

The aging process, in which the skin becomes thinner and loses some of its natural lubricant, also makes dryness more likely. Dry skin, in turn, promotes the development of those fine lines that often accompany advancing age. Severe dryness can be marked by redness and flaking or peeling, or even deep fissures that may bleed. What’s more, dry skin isn’t just a female complaint. “Women tend to be more sensitive to their bodies, so they recognize the problem first,” says Miles. “But men suffer from dry skin in equal numbers—they just don’t complain about it as much.”

Moisturizing Inside and Out
Getting enough water is essential if you want to ditch dryness for good. The Institute of Medicine now recommends a total daily fluid intake of 91 ounces (11+ cups) for women and 125 ounces (15+ cups) for men, which includes both beverage and food sources. Drinking pure water is a no-brainer but “installing a chorine filter to shower under and fill your tub with is critical,” says James. Wash with warm, not hot, water, don’t bathe or shower for more than 15 minutes and pat (not rub) yourself dry afterwards. Using a humidifier, either attached to your furnace or as a standalone unit, is a good idea.

Putting water into your body is one thing. Keeping it there is another—and that means eating a proper diet. “If you’re not taking an adequate supply of omega fats, you’re probably going to have dry skin,” says Miles. The typical American diet is especially short on the omega-3 fatty acids, the ones found in fish (and fish oil) and flax seed. “Sometimes dry skin is the lifelong result of an inherited inability to convert certain essential fatty acids in the body,” says James. “A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explained that these people have reduced conversion of linoleic acid to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).” To get GLA into your diet, James recommends evening primrose and hemp oils.

“For dry skin one of the best ingredients is the vitamin E family—it’s a whole family, not just one vitamin,” says Miles. “Cranberry oil is very high in different kinds of vitamin E, so it’s good both internally and topically.” And MSM, a natural source of sulfur, helps skin stay soft and flexible.

Eliminating sugar from your diet also helps. The sweet stuff causes “premature wrinkling via glycation, or protein ‘cooking,’ and inflammation,” says James. “It is almost startling how much more supple and soft skin becomes after several days off of sugar if you increase omega-3 fats at the same time.”

James knows first-hand the benefits of a better diet: Her own skin improved after treatment for a liver disorder. Omega-3 fats, along with alpha lipoic acid and milk thistle, ended her skin rashes, and “the uncomfortably dry skin I'd had since about the age of 8 became normal.” (Consult a trained health practitioner if you believe that your dry skin tells of a deeper problem.)

The same approach that works with dietary changes—out with the bad, in with the good—applies to skincare products as well. Avoid “harsh exfoliants and cleansers with perfumes that strip and sensitize the skin,” says James, who also warns against using petroleum-based moisturizers. Use gentle, nondetergent cleansers instead.

After showering or bathing, apply a light layer of skin-friendly oil, such as jojoba, sweet almond, avocado, hemp or sesame. “Pomegranate oil has high levels of humectants, or substances that promote moisture retention,” says Miles. She adds, “To optimize skin health you should look for products that contain a healthy amount of antioxidants.” Products that feature cranberry oil, with its vitamin E, help fill the bill, as do those that include olive oil, which is rich in antioxidant polyphenols. Aloe vera eases inflammation and helps fight viruses and bacteria to boot.

So go ahead—slip on some quality moisturizer and have your winter fun. But heed what your skin is trying to tell you. “The skin is truly just an outward expression of the internal body,” Miles says. “You cannot have beautiful skin if you don’t have a healthy body.”
—Lisa James

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