Does Soap Dry Out Your Skin?
Dry, itchy skin can afflict both adults and children, especially during the winter, when cold, windy weather depletes your skin's natural moisturizers. Harsh soaps and hot baths might keep your skin clean, but they can also strip away protective oils. This can leave your skin vulnerable to the drying effects of forced-air heating, winter air and extreme temperature shifts. Although you cannot control the weather, changing your skin-cleansing routines can keep moisture in your skin.
Most soaps are made of lye, also known as caustic soda or sodium hydroxide. The corrosive cleaning agent is traditionally obtained through the leaching of wood ashes. Although lye is great for cleaning, the lye in most over-the-counter soaps can be irritating and drying to your skin. Moisturizing or "superfatted" soups, with added emollients -- such as coconut oil, lanolin or cocoa butter -- may be less-drying choices.
Even if you choose an extra-moisturizing soap, added fragrances and dyes can sometimes dry out and irritate your skin. If you experience this type of skin irritation, the American Academy of Family Physicians suggests switching to hypoallergenic, unscented bath soaps and laundry detergents. If you need a deodorant soap, use it only on body parts that can develop odor, such as armpits, genitals and feet.
Most people's skin dries out because of their cleaning routines, not because of a natural lack of moisturizing oils, says Hayes Gladstone, an associate professor of dermatology, in an article on the Stanford Health Library website. Itchy, flaky, irritated skin -- often caused by harsh soaps -- is one of the main reasons people consult with a dermatologist, Gladstone says. Skipping harsh soaps during the winter months can keep your skin moisturized and protected -- and perhaps save you a trip to the doctor.
Because using soap too often, even superfatted ones, can dry out your skin, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends taking short -- 15 minutes or less -- lukewarm showers or baths and using soap on your body just two or three times a week. Try replacing your normal soap cleanser with an oil-infused shower gel -- the added oils can replace natural moisturizers removed by showering and bathing.
Sometimes dryness and irritation from soap can lead to skin infections. If your skin becomes red, warm and swollen --or if it oozes fluid -- call your doctor. You might need antibiotics to help clear up a skin infection. Severe itching, especially in an older adult, can indicate serious medical problems that warrant prompt evaluation by a health-care professional.
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