Why Do I Get Itchy Skin in the Winter?
The science—and solutions—for itchy skin are surprisingly simple
by Leanne Delap
(Excerpt) Ask The Kit is the real-talk advice column you never knew you needed. Every week, writer Leanne Delap answers your pressing beauty and style questions. How can I find good plus-size options? How can I get shiny hair? How do I define my personal style? Send your Qs to ask@
“It happens every winter, like clockwork. I get that the house is drier with the furnace on 24/7, but why does that make my skin so itchy? I’d like to understand what is going on at a microscopic level, and what I can do about it. No matter how many creams I buy and slather on, it just keeps coming back.” —Scratching in Scarborough
I love nitty-gritty questions like these, not least because it means I get to ring up a doctor and ask them in detail about their work—especially when it comes to dermatology. All the Latin makes me giddy as I’m still a nerdy 10th grader at heart. It also makes me humble: There is so much I don’t know about how the human body works, and so much I make up to fill in the yawning gaps of knowledge.
We all do this. A great example, says dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett, is the myth that we are “dehydrated” when our skin is dry and itchy. The fact is, we might well be dehydrated, but that is not going to show up in the form of dry skin. “Skin does not get dehydrated. An apple gets dehydrated. That is not the right term,” says Kellett, who runs the Toronto medical and aesthetic skin clinic DLK on Avenue. “What you have is what we call transdermal water loss on the surface of the skin.”
Where you see flakiness, that is indicative of water loss. “On the stratum corneum, or the upper layer of skin, the barrier that is supposed to protect us has been breached,” she says. “That causes the sensation of itchiness.” The correct term for itchiness, by the way, is “pruritus.”
If your itching is really bad, and persistent, Kellett says you should make an appointment with your family doctor to eliminate systemic problems. “There is a very long list of causes of pruritus, and you want to make sure it is not thyroid or a systemic disease like lymphoma,” she says. “Get it checked out if it is accompanied by weight loss, night sweats and chills—those are not good things.”
Even if your itching is not linked to a serious health problem, Kellett thinks the discomfort of itching is not something to be minimized. “Itching can be worse than pain,” she says. “It can keep you up at night. In quality-of-life studies it has shown to be very debilitating.” She is talking about afflictions such as eczema a.k.a. atopic dermatitis (dermatitis refers to skin irritation, and there are 15 different types of it; atopic is one).
Allergies may be a factor, as itching can be caused by histamines, chemicals released by the body during allergic reactions. If so, Kellett says using an over-the-counter anti-histamine may help.
If you find you have simple, run-of-the-mill itchy skin caused by cold winter weather and wind chapping outside and forced air inside, Kellett is pleased to report there are quite simple and inexpensive fixes for it. “I’m a purist; I believe you should start with simple things,” she says.