By Dr. Mercola
Reduced humidity combined with colder temperatures tends to wreak havoc on your skin. Many suffer with dry, scaly, itchy skin during winter months even if they don't have a diagnosable skin problem like eczema.
This is commonly referred to as "winter itch," caused when your skin is depleted of moisture. Fortunately, there are simple and inexpensive remedies for this problem.
While conventional advice1 typically includes using petrolatum-based moisturizers, I recommend avoiding creams with petrolatum or mineral oils due to their carcinogenic potential. Mineral oil is also comedogenic, meaning it blocks your pores and your skin's natural respiration process, which can lead to blackheads and pimples.
It's important to remember that your skin is the largest organ of your body, and nearly everything you put on it is readily absorbed. Therefore, avoiding slathering anything on your skin that you wouldn't consider eating is rather sage advice.
I firmly believe you need to approach topical skin care as you approach your diet, and only feed your skin the best ingredients from nature, forgoing toxic chemicals at all costs.
Previous research has shown that women absorb an estimated five pounds of chemicals a year just from the makeup they use! Two effective remedies against dry, itchy winter skin that I will address here are:
- Getting sufficient amounts of animal-based omega-3 fats in your diet
- Using coconut oil to moisturize your skin
In addition to that, I'll also point out some other dietary measures that can make a big difference—and of course we can't forget about drinking water to stay hydrated.
Dry Skin—a Sign of Omega-3 Deficiency
Your skin is an outer reflection of your insides, so your diet is a potent ally against most skin problems. When it comes to dry, flakey skin, animal-based omega-3 fat, such as krill oil, can play a very important role. Besides drinking plenty of water, it may be one of the best ways to hydrate your skin from the inside out. In fact, one reliable way to evaluate your omega-3 status is to take a close look at your hands.
If they're smooth and soft, you're probably getting enough omega-3 fat in your diet. If they're not, or if other areas of your skin are dry, flaking or cracked, there is a good chance you need to increase your omega-3 intake.
When I travel and lecture and interact with people publicly, I am regularly amazed at how many people have dry hands when I shake their hand. And nearly every one of them have a fatty acid deficiency.
Omega-3 fats help to normalize your skin fats and prevent dehydration in your cells. This keeps your skin cells strong and full of moisture, which can help to decrease the appearance of fine lines. Omega-3 fats can also help calm irritated skin, giving you a clearer, smoother complexion courtesy of its anti-inflammatory activity.
So, as a first step, if you struggle with dry skin, make sure you are taking enough omega-3 fats. In the colder dry winter months, you may need to increase your dose.
Other Dietary Measures That Promote Healthy, Moisturized Skin
Besides increasing your omega-3 intake, you'd be wise to address the rest of your diet as well. Eating a healthy diet as described in my nutrition plan, which focuses on whole, bioavailable organic foods, is your number one strategy for helping your body detox naturally while supplying the necessary nutrients your skin needs to thrive.
Some foods are particularly effective at promoting beautiful, clear, healthy skin, and this includes:
• Fresh vegetables: Ideally fresh, organic and locally grown. Fresh vegetable juice is also wonderful for your skin, as are carotenoids, which give red, orange and yellow fruits their color. Studies have shown that eating foods with these deeply colored pigments can actually make your face look healthier than being tanned.
I've seen 75-year-old women in my practice that had virtually no facial wrinkles. Most of them were doing large amounts of juicing and led healthy lifestyles, which was one of the reasons why I started juicing
• Fermented vegetables. Many don't realize this, but the health and quality of your skin is strongly linked to the health of your gut. Fermented vegetables are ideal for promoting the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria.
Signals from these gut microorganisms are sent throughout your body—they even interact with organisms in your skin. Researchers are now looking into how these interactions can help with a wide variety of skin conditions, including dryness and poor collagen production. Normalizing your gut microflora has been shown to help against skin irritations and chronic skin problems like eczema and psoriasis.
The bacterial cells living in and on your body outnumber human cells by 10 to 1. Even after you wash, there are still 1 million bacteria living on every square centimeter of your skin. Far from being your enemy, these microorganisms are essential for optimal health and radiant skin. The bacteria on your inner elbow, for instance, process the raw fats it produces, which helps moisturize your skin.
Optimizing your gut bacteria has even been shown to produce clearer, acne-free skin. If you do not regularly consume fermented foods, then high-quality probiotics is definitely recommended.
• Avoiding sugars, fructose, grains, and processed foods: This is perhaps the most important step you can take to improve your overall skin health regardless of the season. If you eliminate all sugars, fructose and grains from your diet for a few weeks, you would likely notice rapid improvement in your complexion. Processed foods, trans fats, processed table salt, and pasteurized dairy products can also have a detrimental impact on your skin.
Avoiding these foods will improve insulin sensitivity, which is important for overall health, including your heart health. Interestingly, recent research2 shows that the perceived age of a woman's face, based on wrinkle measurements and complexion can help predict her risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Those who looked more youthful, with fewer wrinkles, also had lower blood pressure and reduced risk for heart disease.
Powerful Antioxidant Helps Promote Healthy Skin, Both Internally and Topically
Astaxanthin—a potent antioxidant—has been found to offer a number of benefits to your skin, from acting as an internal sunscreen to developing a healthy color cast to your skin that most people find attractive—even more attractive than a regular tan. Research also suggests that astaxanthin may benefit your skin when applied topically.
In a 2001 study3 that explored the topical benefits of astaxanthin, hairless mice were exposed to UVB radiation for 18 weeks to simulate photo-aged skin. The mice that had astaxanthin applied to their skin developed fewer wrinkles compared to the control group, and had younger-appearing collagen. In fact, the collagen of the astaxanthin mice looked as if it had never been exposed to UV radiation. The researchers concluded that astaxanthin "can significantly prevent UV-induced collagen degradation, wrinkles, lipid peroxidation, sunburn, phototoxicity and photoallergy." It also reduced freckles and age spots.
One of the women on my staff creates her own moisturizer, mixing one astaxanthin capsule into about three ounces of organic virgin coconut oil. Bear in mind that pure astaxanthin is highly pigmented, so if you want to try this you'll probably want to use rubber gloves when cutting the capsule open to avoid staining your fingers. However, while the mixture itself does have a bright carrot color to it, it doesn't noticeably stain your skin once you apply it.
Coconut Oil Helps Moisturize Your Skin
For all its internal health benefits, pure coconut oil is also a wonderful all-natural "anti-aging" moisturizer when applied topically. When absorbed into your skin and connective tissues, coconut oil helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by helping to keep your connective tissues strong and supple. It also helps exfoliate the outer layer of dead skin cells, making your skin smoother.
Physiologist and biochemist Ray Peat, Ph.D. considers coconut oil an antioxidant,4 due to its stability and resistance to oxidation and free radical formation. Besides that, coconut oil also has potent antimicrobial activity. (About 50 percent of the fat in coconut oil is lauric acid that your body converts into monolaurin, which has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-protozoa properties. Capric acid, another coconut fatty acid present in smaller amounts, also has antimicrobial activity.)
All of these features make it a good choice for skin applications. Coconut oil is perhaps one of the most useful ingredients you can keep in your house. A previous article by Delicious Obsessions5 lists no less than 122 creative uses for this household staple, including 21 DIY coconut oil skin care recipes.6 For example, you can use it as a base for body scrubs, homemade deodorant, toothpaste, hand and body cream, lip balm—even bug repellent.
A 5-Step Shower Routine for Tackling Dry Skin
Removing excess skin flaking can help reveal more glowing skin underneath. The following routine can help you accomplish that without harsh chemicals:
- Dry brush your skin prior to getting wet using a body brush. This will help get rid of loose flakey skin
- Avoid using soap or use the least amount possible, especially in the winter or in dry climates, as that will tend to worsen your dry skin
- Instead, apply a natural body scrub to exfoliate your skin (also apply this to your skin before getting wet, and choose one that also contains oil to moisturize)
- Hot showers can worsen dry skin so take the coldest shower you can tolerate
- After your shower, apply a heavy natural body butter or natural moisturizing oil (not mineral oil or baby oil) to help seal in moisture. As mentioned earlier, organic coconut oil is an ideal choice
During Winter Months, Stay Well-Hydrated Inside and Out to Prevent Itchy Skin
Most people remember to stay hydrated during the summer, as the heat makes you sweat and develop a thirst. But reduced humidity and cold weather tends to suck the moisture right out of your skin, so you still need to make sure you're staying well hydrated, even though you're not sweating. As mentioned earlier, optimizing your omega-3 level is one of the best ways to moisturize your skin from the inside out. But you also need to drink clean pure water. Drink enough to where your urine is a light yellow color.
Working from the inside out, your diet can clearly make a big difference when it comes to keeping your skin supple and healthy. Avoiding processed foods, sugars and grains, is a foundational strategy for healthy skin, regardless of the season. While adding plenty of vegetables—both fresh and fermented—will further boost your skin health quotient.
As for topical remedies against dry itchy skin, remember that many chemical-laden concoctions can make matters worse rather than better. While petrolatum-based creams may help seal in moisture, thereby appearing to fix the problem, research has shown that topical applications of moisturizers such as Dermabase, Dermovan, Eucerin Original Moisturizing Cream, or Vanicream may actually increase your skin cancer risk...
Organic coconut oil is an ideal alternative to potentially toxic creams and lotions filled with suspicious ingredients. You can use it straight out of the jar, or mix it with other all-natural ingredients.
For ideas and recipes, see Delicious Obsessions' article7 on this topic. If you do opt for a commercial moisturizer, I recommend sticking to USDA certified 100% organic products. Personally, I rarely put anything consciously on my skin that I wouldn't be willing to put in my mouth. For example, I designed my organic body butter with eight food-based ingredients that are well-recognized for their benefits, safety, and effectiveness. These ingredients individually and synergistically contribute to softer, smoother, moister skin, without taxing your body with potential toxins. I believe that, along with a nutrient-dense diet and pure water, a truly all-natural, organic moisturizer can help you achieve a clear and radiant complexion.
✓ Organic Shea Butter
✓ Cocoa Butter
✓ Virgin Coconut Oil
✓ Jojoba Oil
✓ Murumuru Butter
✓ Rice Bran Extract (Oryza Sativa)
✓ Palm Oil
✓ Aloe Vera Juice