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Winter health and wellness: dry skin and hair

Have you ever wondered why your hair and skin becomes drier during the winter?

There’s a reason that winter is called cold and flu season, during these months you are more likely to experience a variety of symptoms than any other season.

Winter health symptoms include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Colds and flu
  • Low mood
  • Dry skin and hair

In this blog, we discuss everything you need to know about dry skin and hair in the winter.

What is dry skin?

Dry skin is usually a mild, temporary condition that can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. It is very common and can appear at any age [1].

Although dry skin is not a serious condition, it is often associated with other medical conditions such as eczema, contact dermatitis, and psoriasis.

Symptoms of dry skin include:

  • Tight skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Flaky skin

What causes dry skin?

The skin is made up of different layers and forms a natural barrier to protect the body from the outside environment [1]. To help protect the outer layer of skin from losing water, the skin produces an oily substance called sebum – if the skin doesn’t have enough, it loses water and feels dry.

Using gentle soap, avoiding hot baths, and using a good moisturiser can all help to protect the sebum in the skin and stop it from drying out.

Common causes of dry skin include:

  • Excessive hand washing
  • Excessive bathing or showering
  • Hot, dry weather, or central heating
  • Frequent exposure to the wind and sun
  • Cold weather

Dry skin can sometimes also be a side effect of certain medications.

Basic steps to avoid dry skin include:

  • Using gentle, unscented skincare products
  • Moisturising your skin daily
  • Keeping hydrated by drinking plenty of water during the day
  • Increasing the humidity/moisture in the air

The lack of humidity tends to be the main culprit in winter. If this is the case, then it is recommended to use a type of moisturiser known as an emollient.

Ways emollients can help your dry skin include:

  • Hydrating the skin
  • Adding moisture to the skin
  • Helping reduce water loss by providing a barrier

Emollients are recommended by the NHS for dry skin and you can buy these from a pharmacy or supermarket without a prescription. If your skin condition is severe, talk to your GP, nurse, or health visitor, as you may need a stronger treatment.

What causes dry hair?

Similar to dry skin, dry hair happens when your hair doesn’t retain enough moisture. This can make it look less shiny, frizzy, and dull [2].

Common causes of dry hair include:

  • Spending time in the wind
  • Extreme temperature changes
  • Increased time spent indoors in central heating
  • Increasing the temperature of the water you wash your hair with (i.e. warmer showers)
  • Using too much heat on your hair
  • Using harsh hair care products

The lack of humidity during winter is often the main culprit when it comes to dry, dull, and lifeless hair. Although we can’t change the weather, we can take steps to help prevent dry hair.

Basic steps to avoid dry hair:

  • Use a moisturising hair treatment, such as a hair mask, at least once a week.
  • Limit hair washing to two-three times a week.
  • Use natural shampoos and conditioners – ones without silicones and parabens are best as they avoid stripping the hair’s natural oils.
  • Leave your hair to air dry to avoid heat damage.

Can medical conditions cause dry skin and hair?

Although it is normal to experience dry skin and hair during winter, for some people, the cold weather is not the cause. Dry skin and coarse hair can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying medical condition.

Medical conditions that can cause dry skin and hair include:

  1. An underactive thyroid

It is easy to see how an underactive thyroid might be overlooked in winter as the symptoms can be similar to how we generally feel when the days are colder and darker.

Symptoms of an underactive thyroid include:

  • Weight gain
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Struggling to keep warm
  • Feeling tired and lethargic

A simple Thyroid Function Blood Test can be a great way to see whether your thyroid is functioning as it should be.

An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) is especially common among women, affecting almost 2% of the UK population [3]. So don’t just blame your symptoms on the cold weather - speak to your GP or test yourself at home.

You can read more about underactive and overactive thyroids in our thyroid health guide.

  1. The menopause

As women enter menopause and oestrogen production begins to decline, the ovaries stop releasing eggs and periods come to an end [4].

Oestrogen is not only an important sex hormone, it is also crucial in the stimulation of collagen and oils [5].

Collagen is a protein that helps prevent the effects of ageing on the skin. When collagen levels decline, wrinkles can start to develop.

Alongside the decline in collagen, there can be a decline in oil production. The less oil in the body, the less moisture the body can retain, resulting in dry and itchy skin.

Oestrogen also helps hair to grow long and healthy. Therefore, as menopause approaches and oestrogen production reduces, dull hair and itchy skin can occur in many women.

Other symptoms of menopause can include:

  • Weight gain
  • Mood changes
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Hot flashes

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of menopause, we recommend you speak to your GP.

Alternatively, you can test from the comfort of your home with our Menopause Blood Test.

  1. A mineral/vitamin deficiency

In the body, minerals are vital for many different functions including building strong bones and teeth, keeping our skin and hair healthy, and transmitting nerve impulses.

Minerals that keep skin and hair healthy include:

Iron

Iron deficiency is common in women with hair loss [6] and is the most common cause of hair loss in premenopausal women.

Some studies have shown that iron supplementation can not only reverse iron deficiencies but even induce hair growth [6].

Symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations (noticeable heartbeats)
  • Pale skin

Foods that are rich in iron include:

  • Dark-green leafy vegetables
  • Fortified cereals and bread
  • Red meat
  • Dried fruit
  • Pulses (beans, peas, and lentils)

Zinc

Zinc is essential for healthy cell division, so hair and nails that are constantly growing need a rich zinc supply.

Symptoms of zinc deficiency include:

  • Dull and brittle hair
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin

Foods that are rich in zinc include:

  • Oysters
  • Lamb
  • Wheat germ
  • Spinach
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Nuts

Magnesium

Magnesium is also important for the maintenance and growth of healthy hair and nails as it helps the body absorb calcium.

Foods that are rich in magnesium include:

  • Bananas
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Seeds and nuts

Other vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, vitamin D, and biotin may play a part in dry hair or hair loss. But like many of these minerals and vitamins, the evidence for nutrition and hair health can be contradictory due to the lack of robust research.

If you think that a mineral deficiency may be to blame, you can check your iron, magnesium and zinc levels with one of our blood tests.

How to investigate the cause of your dry hair and skin

Although experiencing dry skin and hair is not the biggest of problems, it can affect your confidence and self-esteem.

A blood test can help you explore the reasons for your dry skin and hair, allowing you to be proactive in the steps you take to improve symptoms.

Our wellness blood tests collection has several blood tests that can help with investigating symptoms or checking overall health and wellness. 


References

  1. https://www.cambridgeshireandpeterboroughccg.nhs.uk/easysiteweb/getresource.axd?assetid=11878&type=0&servicetype=1
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/dry-hair#_noHeaderPrefixedContent
  3. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng145/chapter/Context
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685269/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6380979/