Dry skin blues

There’s a bottle of fish oil capsules sitting on our kitchen counter. From the veterinary clinic. For the cat, who’s been experiencing the same misery as a lot of humans during this long winter: dry, itchy, flaky skin.

Dry skin doesn’t get much respect. After all, it’s not as serious as, say, heart disease. But as anyone who’s ever had it can attest, it’s certainly uncomfortable to live with.

Dry skin (the medical name for it is xerosis) can have many causes, some more difficult to address than others. Most of the time and for most people, though, the cause is environmental – and if it happens to be wintertime, you can usually blame it on constant exposure to dry air, both indoors and out.

The consensus seems to be that we function best with an indoor relative humidity of 40 to 60 percent. But during the winter, indoor humidity is usually much lower – around 20 percent in most buildings (and in fact it shouldn’t be much higher than this if you want to avoid problems with condensation). Unfortunately, the lower the outdoor temperature drops, the lower the relative humidity inside your home, workplace or school and the greater the chance that your hide will feel dry and uncomfortable.

Signs of dry skin can range from tightening, roughness and flakiness to fine lines and cracks. In more severe cases, deep painful fissures can develop that may become infected if bacteria are introduced – no small matter for health care workers and others who deal with chronically dry hands from washing them many, many times in a single day.

What to do? Here’s some advice from the Mayo Clinic:

- Choose an emollient-rich moisturizer and apply it several times a day. Products with petroleum jelly also can help but they tend to be greasy so you might want to limit them to nighttime use.

- Avoid harsh soaps. Cleansing creams, bath gels and soaps containing added moisture or fat are better choices.

- A long hot bath or shower may sound tempting after being outdoors in subzero weather but beware – hot water can strip valuable moisture from your skin. Stick to warm water and limit your time in the shower. After bathing, lightly pat your skin dry, then immediately apply a moisturizer; doing so will help trap water in the surface cells of your skin.

- Use a home humidifier during the dry winter months (but be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper cleaning and maintenance).

So what about fish oil? Although consumption of omega 3 fatty acids has some benefit to heart health, there’s little proof it does much for dry skin, at least in the human species. There’s one small study that found fish oil supplements helped reduce itching among patients undergoing hemodialysis. Another rather interesting study on orange roughy oil found that it lessened dry skin – but again, this was a very small study and the fish oil was applied directly to the skin, not consumed in a capsule.

Thankfully the cat has stopped biting at herself and pulling out tufts of fur to try to relieve the itching, so we’re taking that as a sign the omega 3 supplement is helping. But we’ll  let her keep the fish oil all to herself.

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