Updated 2/3/21. Winter, for many, includes having dry, itchy skin on the body. It’s one thing to have the skin be dry and flaky, but to have an ongoing itch on the arms and legs that is tempting to scratch is really annoying and makes the dry skin condition even worse. Why does the skin itch, and what can be done to help this?
If you’ve been applying heavy body lotion to resolve this condition, this alone won’t get rid of it. In this post, I’ll share my expert tips for repairing dryness and itchiness and providing soothing relief—once and for all.
Why Does the Skin On My Body Get so Dry and Itchy in Winter?
Your skin has a moisture barrier made of natural lipids that keep moisture in the skin and irritants out. When this barrier is damaged, it creates tiny, invisible cracks in the skin that allow moisture to escape, resulting in the skin being visibly flaky. Common reasons for why this can occur are your age, skin thinness, drying soaps, drying shower gels, cold winter air, low humidity environments, and genetics that are linked to a mutation in the filaggrin gene.
Through these cracks in the skin, irritants like friction from scratchy clothing, heavily perfumed lotions, and overuse of abrasive body salt scrubs can stimulate nerve endings and cause the skin to feel even more sensitive and itchy. (Read more about a damaged moisture barrier in the skin.)
8 Expert Tips to Get Rid of Dry, Itchy Skin
1. Avoid using bar soap or high-foaming body washes
The body has far fewer oil glands than that of the face and the ones that you do have decrease with age, making it more difficult to stay moist. Due to the high pH of bar soaps and highly foaming body washes, these can be very stripping to the skin and make dryness and itchiness worse. A safer option is to use a non-drying, low-foaming shower gel. Look for ones that are creamy in consistency and say ‘sulfate-free’ on the bottle. Avoid the ingredients Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, as these only further damage the skin’s barrier.
2. Use a humidifier
Whenever the air is dry and moisture is not present, the air draws moisture from wherever it can (through a process called osmosis). Especially in the winter, it will take it directly from your skin. Using a humidifier helps counteract the dryness in the air so moisture is less likely to evaporate. Here are six reasons to use a humidifier in the winter.
3. Exfoliate the skin gently twice a week
Gently dissolving and removing surface dry, flaky skin cells will not only make the skin look smoother and feel softer but when body lotion or oil is applied after, it will penetrate deeper into the skin. Exfoliation is based on the ‘out with the old and in with the new’ concept and will help repair the skin’s moisture barrier.
When it comes to exfoliating the skin on the legs and arms, there are several options.
- Use a gentle body scrub a few times a week but you might avoid ones that use salt as this may further irritate the skin—especially when it’s damaged.
- In place of a body scrub, you can use a dry body brush.
- Use an exfoliating body serum three nights (or days) a week underneath a body lotion or body oil.
Removing dry cells is one of the best things you can do to help dryness and itchiness as long as you immediately apply a good lotion or body oil on the freshly exfoliated skin to keep it protected.
4. Use a body lotion or oil both morning and night, but choose one with barrier-repairing ingredients
Not all moisturizing ingredients are equal, but the ones below are some of the most effective for repairing dry, itchy skin:
Bois De Rose Oil
Evening Primrose Oil
Sweet Almond Oil
Sesame Seed Oil
These ingredients will correct both the lack of oil and lack of hydration deep within your skin and actually repair the skin’s lipid moisture barrier, making your skin moist, supple, and smooth.
I personally like to apply lotion and then seal it in with a body oil on top to provide a protective seal so moisture will have a really hard time escaping.
5. Avoid tight clothing with scratchy fibers
I know for me, itchiness occurs on my hips where my clothes are the tightest. The rubbing when I move around adds to the irritation and causes my skin to itch like crazy in the winter. Even though I don’t have visible dryness in this area, it is still a sign of a damaged moisture barrier, so I have to treat this area by regularly exfoliating and moisturizing. Fabrics like wool can add to skin irritation so it’s best to wear cotton, silk or smooth fabrics next to the skin.
6. Avoid using the shower fan
During the winter when the heat is on in the house, it can create an exceptionally dry environment. When the air is dry it seeks moisture and steals it from wherever it is available. After taking a warm shower or bath, the moisture collects and hangs in the air. Avoid running your bathroom fan or vent to eliminate the steam. Instead, allow the humidity to linger. This will encourage the moisture to remain in the air, which will keep your skin comfortably hydrated. Be sure to apply a body lotion or oil immediately after you get out of the shower or bath.
7. Eat foods that contain “good fats”
Almonds, salmon, sardines, avocados, walnuts and olive oil all contain fatty acids that keep the skin moist from the inside out. Consider taking an Evening Primrose supplement to offer additional comfort for dry, itchy skin.
8. When all else fails, apply a cortisone cream
For itchiness, applying a non-prescription, topical 1% cortisone cream in place of body lotion can provide anti-inflammatory relief. You can also mix this in with a body lotion before applying it to the skin.
In summary, if you’re really consistent with exfoliating regularly and using well-formulated lotions or oils along with my other suggestions, you should be able to dramatically reduce the visible flakiness and get the itching under control. If not, I suggest that you consult with a board-certified dermatologist.
I hope the tips in this post bring you some skin relief—fast!
Want to learn more about how to care for your skin in the winter? Read these 8 annoying winter skin issues and how to fix them.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”