THE PhDS at cosmetics companies will discuss at length the scientific principles behind their expensive potions for dry skin. But ever since a university-based dermatologist recommended the cheap and simple combination of mineral oil and lanolin, I’ve concocted my own brew.
More than 30 years later, I’ve made only a few alterations—dropping in a little almond oil after friends described the odor as somewhere between sheep and urine; switching for a reason I can’t remember from mineral oil to vaseline petroleum jelly; and adding a few glops of some commercial preparation like Lubriderm or Eucerin to more easily mix in the heavy lanolin.
Although most friends brave enough to sample the brew find it too greasy, nothing has worked better for me, particularly after a long winter of long, hot baths and showers (ill-advised for those with dry skin) but mostly dry air, despite regular efforts to increase indoor humidity.
Still, I continue to experiment with alternatives—for the hoped-for ease of ordering online as well as for saving tired hands. With their temptingly natural nickname, “barnyard balms,” used to prevent cows’ udders from chapping, turned out to moisten and soften farmers’ hands. But because most people find Bag Balm greasy and smelly and Udder Cream unappealing because it contains urea, I tried the more popular Udderly Smooth, with instructions to “wash udder and teat parts” and the warning, “Do not use on parts affected with cow pox.” It failed to restore my skin’s moisture.
Moisture is delivered to the skin via blood vessels that supply the skin’s middle layer, the dermis; from there it travels upward through the outer level, the epidermis, a bricks-and-mortar type membrane that acts as a hydrophobic barrier— before evaporating. The dryer the air due to low outdoor temperatures and overheated interiors, the more moisture it pulls from the skin. (The third and lowest level of skin is the hypodermis or fatty layer.)
Dry, flaky skin or xerosis (officially when the skin’s moisture level is less than 10%) occurs when the water-retaining abilities of the top layer of skin are lost. To stay moist, what the skin needs is the unlikely sounding combination of oil and water: moisturizers work best when applied after bathing —when the water ingredient is already there —after the skin is blotted but not rubbed dry.
“Applying an oily substance to the skin without also resupplying it with water…is ineffective: you’d just end up with greasy skin that is still dry and cracked,” according to the Harvard Health Letter. “One reason for the proliferations of moisturizers is the continuing search for a mix of ingredients that holds in water like petrolatum but feels nicer on the skin.”
But there is no consensus regarding the definition of a moisturizer…a neologism coined by Madison Avenue,” according to dermatology researcher Anishi Sethi.
Traditionally, oily materials were applied to the skin “to inhibit trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL)” by replacing the lost barrier.
Such oily materials—notably mineral oils and petrolatum—diffuse into the intercellular levels where they help bolster the bricks-and-mortar structure and form an evaporation-blocking barrier. Within this category of moisturizers called occlusives, petroleum jelly has a “water vapor loss resistance” 170 times that of olive oil and reduces TEWL by more than 98%, compared to lanolin and mineral oils at 20-30%.
Humectants, another category, work by attracting moisture to the skin and keeping it there—“basically the opposite of occlusive and emollients which don’t like water” from outside sources,” writes Julia Calderone at Business Insider.
“But beware,” says Calderone. “In dry conditions, humectants can draw moisture from the younger, moist cells in the lower layers of the skin instead of pulling moisture from the air. Minimize this by pairing a humectant with an occlusive, which keeps the moisture in.”
The third category, emollients, include their own water and “penetrate the skin making it feel soft and flexible,” she explains. Depending on the amount of water added, emollients range from lotions to creams to ointments: for lotions, water is the base with Vaseline added; creams contain a little more added Vaseline; and ointments start with Vaseline mixed with a little mineral oil to lessen the stickiness.
Adding water, however, increases the likelihood of spoiling, requiring the addition of preservatives. And “since preservatives can stink, we add fragrances to mask the unpleasant smell…the more water content a product contains, the more likely it is for bacteria to form, so the higher the preservative and fragrance content,” according to Dermatology Alliance —which is why ointments can be easier on sensitive skin as well as less likely to go bad.
In addition to udder creams, home remedies include the familiar pairing of vinegar and olive oil, usually one or the other. In “The People’s Pharmacy,” by Joe and Terry Graedon, one contributor dips her hands in a solution of two-thirds white vinegar and one-third water for two minutes and then rinses. Noting the lack of supporting science, “The People’s Pharmacy” authors suggest “vinegar restores balance to dry skin caused by too much hand washing.”
Olive oil rubbed on skin, as well as hair, is also considered an “effective moisturizer,” by “The People’s Pharmacy,”although “it may be a little greasy.” And it can appeal to dogs who like licking oily skin.
In one rating system assessing the 10 most popular lotions, the “hands-down” vote went to Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion. The runner up was CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion, which is “even lighter than our pick…more expensive due to ‘healing’ ingredients even though research suggests they make little difference.”
For drier skin, dermatology sites recommend oils, including Neutrogena Light Sesame Oil and Alpha-Keri Oil. The most anecdotally well liked, however, and the one I use as a backup is Aquaphor Advanced Therapy Healing Ointment; and for lips, the Repair and Protect Lip Balm.
Every Tuesday Mary Carpenter reports on well-being, answering questions about living longer, the dangers of heavy metals and solutions for dry skin.