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SIOUX CITY | As temperatures plummet outside and the furnace kicks in inside your home, you may notice your skin becoming itchy and irritated. Cracks that form on your hands may break open and bleed.

Dry skin or xerosis occurs when the skin loses too much water or oil. Age, skin diseases such as eczema, frequent hand-washing and taking medications such as statins and diuretics can cause xerosis. But Indy Chabra, a dermatologist at Midlands Clinic, said winter weather is also a contributing factor.

"As the seasons change, the environment for the skin is changing. The humidity level is changing," he said.

Dry winter air reduces moisture in the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the epidermis, which is made up of corneocytes -- non-living cells, lipids and amino acids. Winter weather, Chabra said, affects both the amino acids and corneocytes.

He likens the stratum corneum to a brick wall with mortar. The bricks are the corneocytes and the mortar is the amino acids and the lipids. Ceramides are the main lipid constituent of the stratum corneum.

"Ceramides are very complex. There are many different types. Some levels go up in the winter. Others go down," he explained.

Although having humidifiers in your home can help, Chabra said the best way to prevent skin from becoming itchy and inflamed is by moisturizing twice a day within five minutes of showering and before bedtime. He said most dermatologists use ceramide-containing moisturizers.  

"You actually deliver the ceramides, the keratinocytes (the predominant cell type in the epidermis) actually take them up, absorb them, and they are recycled and back to the surface," he said. "It takes about seven days for a ceramide-based moisturizer to work."

In addition to ceramides, look for products containing dimethicone, a common barrier ingredient that traps moisturizer in the skin. Avoid ingredients such as alcohol and perfumes which can dehydrate the skin and sometimes cause an allergic reaction. Chabra uses CeraVe, a fragrance-free moisturizer that contains three essential ceramides, but he said there any many other ceramide-containing products available.

Got dry chapped hands?

When washing skin, Chabra recommends using lukewarm water and a gentle soap, such as Dove, to leave moisture behind in the skin.

Although more difficult to apply, Chabra said hand creams are better than lotions.

"Don't rub it in. Just put it on and let the skin drink the stuff. Don't go rubbing," he said.

If your skin causes severe itching and burning and is painful, Chabra said it's time to seek the help of a dermatologist. Midlands Clinic's new location, Midlands Cosmetic, 4301 Sergeant Road, Suite 120, offers extended evening hours during weekdays and is open on Saturday mornings.

"We have same-day appointments. There's no issue of access anymore," he said. "When people have a skin problem in this area, they can get expert help first shot. They don't have to do guesswork."

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Health and Lifestyles reporter

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