Monday Medical: The skinny on dry skin

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The odds are stacked against us.

We have sun, we have dry air, and every day, although we often deny it, we are getting older. Each is a factor that contributes to a common health matter: dry skin.

Our skin is the largest organ in our body. Adults can carry an average of eight pounds and 22 square feet. Its purpose: to protect the body from the outside environment. Fortunately, there are simple measures we can take to improve the health of our skin. As we age, we yearn for the soft skin of our youth.

However, with age the skin loses its oils that help keep it moist and healthy. Combine the natural process of aging with our climate and our active lifestyle in the outdoors, and it stands to reason our skin needs a little extra TLC.

"It is important to keep the outer barrier of our skin intact," Steamboat Springs certified Physician's Assistant Petra Chladek, of Yampa Valley Medical Associates, said.

Chladek, who has a special interest in dermatology and medical aesthetics, said dry skin, or xerosis, is likely caused by our climate. She also added that some basic bathing habits contribute to the deterioration of the outermost layer, or barrier of our skin.

Bathing too often or too long and using hot water are common causes of dry skin, she said. Although we were taught to lather up and scrub to make ourselves clean, overuse of soaps can actually remove that protective layer from the skin. Even so-called beauty or anti-aging soaps could contain ingredients that damage this barrier.

Also, Chladek advised applying a moisturizer when the skin is still damp so it can hold in the moisture. Moisturizers can treat and prevent dry skin. After bathing, pat your skin lightly with a towel and then apply the moisturizer.

Although there are a variety of products available, when it comes to choosing a moisturizer, you do not have to break the bank.

"You don't need the fluff," Chladek said. "You can go with the very basic drug store products."

Chladek said products with emollients are best for keeping in the moisture. Also, unless you have acne, she recommended using products designed for dry skin. While there are a variety of skin types, because of our dry climate most of us will fall into the dry skin category.

Some people who do not like the feel of creams or lotion or have allergies to these products use oils containing vitamin E. For those with really, really dry skin, she suggested using an ointment.

She also stressed that applying sunscreen is imperative.

"The single most important thing you can do is wear a good sunscreen, and wear it consistently," she said. "You need to use a sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection."

Just as the fair-skinned are more susceptible to the sun, they also are more likely to have dry skin. Having allergies or asthma also make one more prone.

In addition to applying skin products, Chladek also recommended using a humidifier.

"Dry skin is often worse in the winter because of central heating," she said. "A humidifier in your home can be helpful."

Although dry skin by itself is not a serious health threat, it can be a sign of more serious conditions. Itchy dry skin often is a symptom of eczema, a persistent skin condition that can produce recurring skin rashes that must be treated by a health care professional.

Skin often is driest on our lower legs. Our hands, which should be washed often to prevent the spread of infection, are subject to the overuse of soap and water.

"Here, preventing the spread of infection outweighs preventing dry skin," Chladek said. "Try to moisturize with lotion whenever you wash your hands."

If dry skin does not go away after some of this TLC, or if you develop any more annoying symptoms such as persistent itching, lesions or bleeding, you should see a medical professional.

Riley Polumbus is communications specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at riley.polumbus@yvmc.org.

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