By Dr. Mercola
Cold, dry winter weather is a common cause of dry skin. It can leave your skin feeling tight, rough, and itchy, which is where the term “winter itch” comes from.
Aside from feeling uncomfortable and perhaps being less than desirable aesthetically speaking, when dry skin becomes severe, it can crack, making a perfect entryway for germs.
These germs can cause infection in your body, not only in your skin but elsewhere as well. For this reason, tending to dry skin is more than a matter of cosmetics; it’s a matter of health and safety.
Tending to Dry Skin from the Inside Out
External variables certainly contribute to dry skin. Weather is a major factor, as mentioned, and so is your occupation. If you’re a nurse or hairstylist, for instance, your hands will be washed and/or immersed in water much of the day, which dries out skin and causes it to become dry and cracked.
If you’re over the age of 40, you may have noticed that your skin has become dryer as well. This tends to happen with age (as your skin becomes thinner as well). People with atopic dermatitis (eczema) are also more prone to dry skin, as are those with psoriasis.
However, another factor to consider is whether your diet is providing the nutrients your skin needs to stay supple. Chief among them are omega-3 fats, which help 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. Fatty-acid deficiency can manifest in a variety of ways, but skin problems such as eczema, thick patches of skin, and cracked heels are common.
Additionally, omega-3 fats may have an anti-inflammatory effect that can help to soothe irritated skin, giving you a clearer, smoother complexion. Omega-3 fat deficiency is actually quite common in the US (it’s been called the sixth biggest killer of Americans), as omega-3-rich foods are not widely consumed.
Fish has always been one of the best sources for animal-based omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, but as levels of pollution have increased, this treasure of a food has become less and less viable as a primary source of these healthful fats.
I’ve previously shared tips on the best types of fish to consume in terms of omega-3 fats and environmental toxins, but a general guideline is the smaller and the closer to the bottom of the food chain the fish is, the less contamination it will have accumulated. This includes:
Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is another healthy option. That said, if you’re suffering from dry skin, an omega-3 fat supplement, such as krill oil, may be highly beneficial. If you already use krill oil, you may need to increase your dose in the colder dry winter months.
Coconut Oil Promotes Skin Health Inside and Out
If your skin is dry now, a simple remedy is pure coconut oil, which acts as 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.
Physiologist and biochemist Ray Peat, Ph.D. considers coconut oil an antioxidant,1 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.
It also helps exfoliate the outer layer of dead skin cells, making your skin smoother. You’d also be wise to start eating coconut oil as well, because it may help protect your skin from the aging effects of free radicals (while offering numerous other health benefits as well).
For topical use, you can use coconut oil by itself or add your favorite essential oil. (Make sure you're using a high-quality essential oil that is safe for topical application.) You can even try whipping the coconut oil with an electric mixer to produce a fluffy moisturizer that stays soft and spreadable even in cooler temperatures.2
Additional Dietary Factors to Hydrate and Soften Skin
Besides increasing your omega-3 intake and using coconut oil, 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 supplying the necessary nutrients your skin needs to thrive. Some foods are particularly effective at promoting beautiful, moisturized, healthy skin, and this includes:
- Drink more water. When the outermost layer of the epidermis (your skin’s outer layer) lacks water, your skin becomes rough and dry. While it’s not entirely clear whether drinking more water can counteract dry skin, it stands to reason that a hydrated body is conducive to hydrated skin. You should drink enough water so that your urine is a very pale yellow.
- Eat 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. A simple way to ensure you're getting enough fresh vegetables in your diet is to juice them.
- 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. 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 are definitely recommended.
- Avoid 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.
Wash Your Hands Only When Necessary and Avoid Hot Showers
Washing your hands with plain soap and water is one of the best defenses against infectious disease (well, aside from maintaining a strong immune system). However, if you wash your hands too often, they will inevitably become dry and probably cracked, especially if it’s winter. This will then make it easier for infectious agents to enter your body, which is counterproductive.
So my advice is to wash your hands only when necessary and using only gentle non-antibacterial soaps to do so. After you wash, you can rub on some coconut oil to help counteract the dryness. In addition, hot water is extremely drying for your skin.
When you shower or bathe, make the water warm but not hot, and try not to linger. If you take long hot showers in the winter, your skin will likely pay the price. And as soon as you’re done showering, slather on some coconut oil to seal in the moisture.
Use a Humidifier to Add Moisture to Your Air
During the winter (and in dry environments), humidity levels frequently drop below 10 percent. This contributes to dry skin, a scratchy throat, and may even increase rates of respiratory infections and allergies.3 To increase humidity, you can:
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier
- Create a steam bath by taking a hot shower, or filling your sink with hot water, then placing a towel over your head as you lean over the sink
- Breathe in the steam from a hot cup of tea
- Boil water on your stove or simply place bowls of water around your home
A word of caution if you decide to use a humidifier: you must be VERY careful about making sure your humidity levels are not too high, as the high humidity will cause mold to grow, which could devastate your health. According to Dr. Robert Ivker, D.O., former President of the American Holistic Medical Association, the ideal level of relative humidity for sinus health is between 35-45 percent. This level is also generally recommended to avoid mold damage in your home. So if you choose to use a humidifier, do so sparingly, making sure humidity levels do not get too high.
A hygrometer, which you can find at most hardware stores, can measure the amount of moisture in your home's air so you can adjust your humidifier use accordingly. Some humidifiers also have a hygrometer built in. As far as using a humidifier goes, you'll also need to make sure you clean it often, at least once every three days using hydrogen peroxide to remove any film or mineral deposits. The water in the reservoir should be changed daily, and be sure the area around it (tabletops, windows, carpeting, curtains, etc.) are kept dry. If you have a central air heating system, the best humidifier is one that is built directly over your furnace and tied into a humidistat and water source so the entire process is automated and your home is evenly humidified.
A Simple Strategy to Get Rid of Dry Flakes
Once you've addressed the suggestions above, the following routine can help you to remove excess flakes to reveal the glowing skin underneath:
- Use a dry body brush to get rid of flakes (do this for a few minutes on your dry skin, before getting wet)
- Avoid using soap or use the least amount possible, especially in winter or in dry climates, as this may promote and aggravate 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)
- After your shower, apply a heavy natural body butter or natural moisturizing oil (not mineral oil or baby oil) to help seal in moisture; coconut oil works well for this purpose
- Protect your skin as much as possible; wear gloves when you go outdoors in cold weather and wrap a scarf around your face, for instance