If it seems like you spend the entire winter season — from first frost to that final (glorious) spring thaw — scratching, applying endless coats of lotion to your extremities, and scratching some more, you're far from alone.
And a new study helps explain why so many people experience pesky dry skin or eczema all winter long.
While the impact of changing temperatures and moisture have already been documented, a study published this week in the British Journal of Dermatology offers insight at a cellular level. After testing skin on the cheeks and hands of 80 healthy adults age 18 to 70 in both summer and winter, researchers found different levels of a protein that helps maintain the skin's barrier during winter months.
They also found changes in the texture of the cells in the outermost layer of the skin, according to a press release.
Both children and adults suffer
"This study shows clearly that the skin barrier is affected by climatic and seasonal changes. Both children and adults suffer from red cheeks in the winter in northern latitudes and some may even develop more permanent skin conditions such as atopic eczema and rosacea," senior author Dr. Jacob Thyssen, of the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, said in a press release.
"By the use of high magnification we show that the skin cells suffer from shrinkage and therefore change their surface. The clinical message to individuals are that they should protect their skin with emollients in the winter and sunscreen in the summer."
The study is interesting because it sheds new light on reasons for seasonal skin changes, Nina Goad of the British Association of Dermatologists said in the press release.
"Given that skin problems are the most common reason for people to visit their doctor, any research that improves our understanding of skin disorders and how best to manage them is always a positive step."
How to protect your skin
For dry arms and legs, a fragrance-free lotion is your best bet, Toronto dermatologist Dr. Sandra Skotnicki recently told Chatelaine. Look for ingredients such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal and shea butter, she added.
But even more important than lotion is what soap you use, Skotnicki said, suggesting people switch to a mild, soap-free cleanser.
"Our natural skin lipids just go down the drain when we use harsh washes."
For the hands, Skotnicki recommends a good, rich cream that won't require a lot of reapplication. And for the face, Dr. Vince Bertucci, president of the Canadian Dermatology Association, recommends a face cream with ceramides and to wear a SPF 30 sunscreen daily.
For those suffering from eczema (a group of diseases that causes inflammation of the skin), see a dermatologist for treatment options, the Canadian Dermatology Association urges.
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