Rough hands, chapped lips, itchy legs—it may seem like you’re fighting a never-ending battle with dry winter skin. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Skin becomes thinner and dryer as we age, says Shari Lipner, M.D., Ph.D., a dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian in New York City, making it more prone to chronic dryness, itching, scaling, and cracking. This is uncomfortable and can become a health risk if bacteria get into breaks in the skin.

Older adults may also be taking medication (such as diuretics) or have medical conditions (such as thyroid disease) that can exacerbate dryness. In those cases, Lipner says, it’s especially important to pay attention to your skin.

What Causes the Problem

The top layer of skin, the epidermis, is made up of skin cells and a lipid (“fatty”) barrier that keeps harmful substances from getting into the body and prevents moisture loss. That barrier weakens with age, but environmental factors can also damage it.

Excessive and aggressive washing as well as harsh cleansers can strip the skin of its natural oils, says Anne Chapas, M.D., founder of Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. And with less moisture in the air during winter months, it’s more difficult to replenish what’s lost. 

Tips for Treating Dry Skin

Preventing dry winter skin by keeping skin moisturized is your best remedy, but these tips will also help you repair any damage:

Pick the right moisturizer. Look for products containing ingredients such as ceramides (oils), dimethicone (a type of silicone), and shea butter, which help provide a good seal on the skin. Alpha hydroxy acids, such as lactic acid, can also help slough off dead skin cells, Lipner says. (They can, however, be irritating to some.) Both doctors say that thick, greasy ointments such as petroleum jelly form a stronger barrier than creams and lotions.

Can’t tolerate the greasiness? Use a thick cream, Lipner suggests. In fact, the thicker the better. A good test of thickness, she notes, is to place some in a palm and turn your hand over. If a portion slides off, it’s not thick enough.

Apply daily. The American Academy of Dermatology says that by the time most people hit their 40s, they need to moisturize every day. Upping your routine from once to twice a day can be helpful when conditions are ripe for dry skin, Lipner says. Apply when your skin is a little wet, such as after a shower, to help it hang on to some of the water.

Shorten your shower time and lower the temperature. Hot baths and showers dry out the skin after a certain point, Chapas says, so keep them to no longer than 5 minutes and use lukewarm water.

Avoid harsh cleansers. All soaps are drying, Chapas points out, but exfoliants, alcohol-based cleansers, and scented soaps can be especially irritating. Stick with gentle cleansers that are labeled “fragrance free.” Body washes may be better than bar soaps because they tend to contain more moisturizing ingredients. Rub cleansers only onto the “fold” areas of your skin—underarms, neck, and groin—and feet. Use very little, if any, on your trunk and limbs. “Those areas don’t get very dirty with sweat,” Chapas says, “and you’re really drying out the skin more than you’re helping it.”

Dial up the humidity. Indoor heating can suck the moisture out of the air—and your skin. Using a humidifier can add it back. Try to maintain indoor air at 30 to 50 percent humidity.

When It's More Than Dry Skin

If skin becomes red, inflamed, irritated, and unbearably itchy, “you should try to see a physician if it’s not resolving with thicker, richer emollients,” Chapas advises.

Inflammatory skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis and an inherited type of dry skin called ichthyosis typically require prescription medication to treat, Lipner says. Fungal infections can also look like dry skin, she explains, so if home remedies aren’t working, you should see a dermatologist.

Skin so dry it cracks can get infected. If that happens, clean it with hydrogen peroxide and apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment, Lipner says. If it gets worse, “it’s really best to see a physician because sometimes oral antibiotics are needed.” 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health