University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Mary Stone, MD
Associate Professor of Dermatology and Pathology
First Published: November 2000
Last Revised: August 2003
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
Winter brings snow, cold temperatures and, for some people, the
"winter itch." "Dry skin, or winter itch, occurs when the top layer
of your skin loses moisture," says Dr . Mary Stone, associate
professor of dermatology and pathology at the University of Iowa
College of Medicine and staff physician at UI Hospitals and
"The water in the top layer of your skin evaporates more rapidly
during the winter because the air is drier," she explains. "You can
put moisture into the air by using a humidifier. Or open the bathroom
door when showering or bathing. More moisture in the air means
moisture will evaporate more slowly from your skin."
As skin becomes dry it may also become itchy, and microscopic cracks
can develop in the top skin layer, Stone says. "Treat dry skin with a
moisturizer that contains lipids--oils--like petroleum jelly."
Stone suggests checking the label of the lotion bottle. If one of
the main ingredients is water--and it's the main ingredient in most
lotions--try to find one with oil listed as a major ingredient.
"If you use a thin water-based lotion, your skin will feel better
for a while, but the water will eventually evaporate, and you haven't
gained much. Creams and ointments usually are more effective than lotions," she
Winter air can chap the skin of children and adults, which can
lead to winter itch. "Prevent chapping by wearing hats, gloves, and
scarves to cover your skin," Stone says. When washing dishes or
cleaning, wear cotton gloves inside rubber gloves if you're using hot
water and soap. "The combination of soap and hot water can quickly
dry your skin," Stone says. "Whether you take a shower or a bath, the
hot water and soap can dry your skin, too.
"Avoid using very hot water, use as little soap as you can
manage--or use a soap-free cleanser--and use a moisturizing cream on
your skin immediately after showering or bathing." If your skin is
itchy, avoid using alcohol, calamine lotion or powder--because all
three tend to dry your skin, she says. You can use a cortisone
product--Stone recommends the ointments rather than the creams,
because they help hold moisture in the skin--to alleviate itching.
"But the most important treatment is to keep the skin moisturized,"
If your skin becomes red, hot, or weepy, see your physician.
"These are signs of a possible infection, and you need more intensive
treatment," Stone says. "If you have dry skin all year long, you may
have an underlying medical problem for which you need to see your
family physician or a dermatologist."
For more information about dry skin, talk to your physician.