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Grease is the key to keeping skin moisturized in Fairbanks' subarctic conditions

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Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 11:50 pm

FAIRBANKS — After 25 years of working as a dermatologist in Fairbanks, Dr. Kathie Anderson-Stirling can sum up the cure for dry skin in one word: Grease.

Dry skin is a fact of life in the arctic desert that is Fairbanks in the winter. The cold, dry environment sucks all the moisture out of the air, not to mention peoples’ skin. The best way to prevent dry skin is to dress in layers, as in layers of moisturizer.

“What we need here is grease,” Anderson-Stirling said.

What she means by that is using a cream-based moisturizer as opposed to a lotion-based moisturizer to treat dry skin.

“If you can pour it out of a bottle or pump it, forget it,” Anderson-Stirling said. “It’s got to be in a jar that you can scoop out with your hand.”

Alcohol is added to moisturizer to make it more liquid, which makes it more cosmetically friendly, she said, but alcohol also dries out the skin. The whole point of using a moisturizer is to seal moisture into the skin, not suck it out, dermatologists said.

Dry skin is the No. 1 problem dermatologists in Fairbanks deal with. The main symptoms of dry skin are itching, burning, cracking and chapping.

“Your skin begins to look like the bottom of a dry lake bed,” is how Anderson-Stirling put it.

The best way to prevent dry skin is to use a good moisturizer on a daily basis.

“If you have a lot of trouble with dry skin you can’t overuse moisturizer,” Dr. Roger Thurmond, another dermatologist in Fairbanks, said. “You can use it once a day or 10 times a day.”

One thing that compounds dry skin problems is over bathing, Thurmond said.

“That’s a common thing people do,” he said. “They take a long, hot, soapy shower every day, and it’s hard on the skin.”

Thurmond recommends cutting back on the number of showers or baths you take in the winter and is a proponent of quick, lukewarm showers.

“Wash the stinky spots and get out of there,” he said.

Thurmond goes as far as telling people to avoid using washcloths because the friction of the washcloth against the skin can cause eczema.

The same thing goes for washing hands, Thurmond said. People are told to wash their hands frequently to avoid getting sick but that can cause chapping and cracking fingertips, he said. He advises not to use hot water when washing hands, washing them palm side up only and using moisturizer afterward.

While she doesn’t usually tell people to reduce the frequency of their bathing, Anderson-Stirling does recommend using moisturizer anytime you get out of a shower, bath, swimming pool, hot tub or sauna. Pools and hot tubs are especially bad because they are chlorinated.

“Hot tubs and swimming pools are hard on skin,” Thurmond said. “They cause a lot of drying and irritation.”

It’s a good idea to use a soap that has moisturizer in it when bathing or washing hands, Anderson-Stirling said. Some good moisturizing soaps include Neutrogena, Tone, Caress and Dove, she said.

“The worst soap in the world is Ivory,” she said. “It has a pH of 11 and the only commercial soap available with a pH that high is Drano.”

She also advised against using deodorant soaps like Irish Spring, Zest or Dial. “They’re really tough on skin,” Anderson-Stirling said.

Keeping skin covered in cold weather also helps prevent it from drying out, which is why people should wear facemasks and scarves, Anderson-Stirling said.

“You’d think that was pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people are totally oblivious to that,” she said.

Getting more oil in your diet is another way to help avoid dry skin, Anderson-Stirling said.

“Flax seed oil. Fish oil. Oil of primrose,” she said, rattling off a few. “Eat a lot of salmon.”

For people who either don’t have, or don’t want to spend, a lot of money on fancy, sweet-smelling moisturizers, Anderson-Stirling said there’s a cheap alternative.

“Crisco out of the can,” she said. “It’s simple, it’s vegetable oil and it’s greasy enough to do the trick.

“If you don’t care if your kids smell like cookie dough it’s great,” Anderson-Stirling said.


Tips to avoid dry skin:

• Use a cream-based moisturizer daily.

• Use moisturizer any time you get out of the shower, bath, swimming pool, hot tub or sauna.

• Use a low pH soap that has moisturizer in it.

• Don’t take long, hot showers or baths.

• Avoid using washcloths because of the friction on the skin.

• Add oil to your diet.

• Cover your skin in cold weather.

• Put a humidifier in the bedroom.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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