What You Can Do About Dry, Itchy Skin
Winter is almost here. Even if you normally don’t have dry skin, your skin may be drier in the winter. Cold winter air and large differences between indoor and outdoor temperatures can make your skin dry, itchy, and painful.
Contrary to what the skincare and beauty industries would have you believe, your skin isn’t a simple, static, impervious wall upon which you can slap serums, moisturizers, anti-wrinkle creams, BB and CC creams, foundation, sunscreen, and other cosmetics with no consequences. Instead, your skin is the largest organ in your body, larger than your gut, brain, lungs, and liver, and every bit as significant, although we don’t think of it as such.
Your skin defines where you end and the world begins; it interacts with the environment, reflects what’s going on within you, and gives you an identity. Your skin is multifunctional, complex, and dynamic; it’s constantly changing in response to the environment.
Dry skin is a sign of dysfunction. It could be minor dysfunction or it could be major, indicative of a serious, systemic disease, as in my case, Sjogren’s (“I Have Sjogren’s”). It’s worth getting curious about your dry skin and investigating to make sure you’re taking care of it appropriately so that you have the most self-sustaining, functional skin you can, without having to spend lots of money, time, and energy because you’ve ignored symptoms of larger problems.
Moreover, healthy skin protects you from the environment. Your skin is a selectively permeable barrier that distinguishes, separates, and protects you from your surroundings. There are 3 components that make up the barriers and defenses on your skin: epithelial cells, skin microbes, and sebum. Should these barriers and defenses be breached, your immune system provides your fourth defense.
The outer layers of your skin are made up of epithelial cells, the same kind of cells that line your intestines and other surfaces and openings in your body. Epithelial cells fit together like tiles and grout to form a selectively permeable barrier that only allows certain things in, typically those that benefit your body.
Sebum is an oily, waxy substance produced by sebaceous glands in your skin. Sebum coats and seals your outermost layer of skin cells and prevents water loss via evaporation, thereby moisturizing your skin.
You also have millions of microbes (bacteria, fungi, viruses) living on your skin, feeding on your sebum, sweat, makeup, and skincare products. The waste products they produce influence how you smell and look, your skin’s health and how it functions, as well as your overall well-being. You’re in a relationship with the microbes living on and in your body. Whatever you put on your body affects the health of your skin and skin microbiome.
When you have dry skin, some or all of the components that make up your skin’s barriers and defenses are dysfunctional, leaving you vulnerable to the environment, prone to infection, irritation, and overstimulation of your immune system. Your epithelial cells may form a leaky barrier that allows pathogens, allergens, and irritants into your body. You may not produce enough sebum to seal moisture into your skin. You also may have skewed populations of skin microbes living on your skin, leaving you prone to infections. All of these dysfunctions can leave you dry, itchy, and painfully inflamed.
Lukewarm showers ensure that you retain moisture and sebum in and on your skin. Skincare products with ingredients that draw or trap moisture into your skin, such as Eucerin, Cerave, Amlactin, and Gold Bond, do the work that sebum normally does on your skin, but they only work as long as your skin is covered by them. Drinking lots of water to stay hydrated may work against you if you’re not paying attention to electrolyte levels. You’ll still have dry skin if you’re not hydrating appropriately and/or you’re losing water through your skin. Steroid creams, e.g., hydrocortisone, reduce inflammation quickly, but long-term use of steroid creams thins your skin and perturbs your metabolism, leaving you more vulnerable and prone to developing topical steroid withdrawal.
The best way I’ve found to revitalise your skin, i.e., restore skin health and function, is to provide your body with nutrients from minimally-processed whole foods, both plant and animal, as these are the most effective, bioavailable building blocks you can use for growth, repair, and regeneration. You can provide these nutrients to your body by eating animal and plant whole foods and also by applying these whole foods to your skin. (Read “Health Is Wealth”, for why nutrients from whole foods are better than isolated nutrients such as vitamin C and niacinamide.)
Read the ingredient labels on whatever you eat and whatever you put on your skin. If you don’t recognize the ingredient as something edible that comes from a plant or animal, it probably isn’t a whole food. Do your research. Don’t believe marketing hype. Think for yourself. Remember, perhaps counterintuitively, using vegan, gluten-free, and high-performance skincare rarely translates into having self-sustaining, healthy skin and a sustainable skin care routine.
Wouldn’t it be nice if “sustainable” applied to the planet’s resources, your resources, and your skin, too? Remember, you’re in a symbiotic relationship with the microbes living in and on your body; you influence them and they influence you. You’re experiencing evolution in real time and you’re in control of the microcosm that is your body. Again, think for yourself. Does it seem sustainable for you to feed your microbes a steady diet of artificially high levels of isolated synthetic nutrients, chemical preservatives, refined crude oil derivatives like petroleum jelly, paraffin, mineral oil, and other multi-hydrocarbon-based byproducts?
Feeding your skin and your skin microbes with nutrients from whole foods, building blocks that you and they recognize and use efficiently, sets your skin up for sustainable health and function. Eat what’s in season and honor the rhythms of your body and Mother Nature. If in doubt, read “Choosing Skincare For Health”, or seek advice from someone knowledgeable about whole foods, skin health, and skin care.
A version of this blog post is published in my local newspaper, the Davis Enterprise. You may have to create a free account to read my article.