You know the feeling: There’s that spot on your arm, leg or back that just itches and begs for a deep, satisfying scratch. But you know that giving in to that desire will only result in more problems. Sure, scratching will give you some quick relief but it’ll also leave your skin red, irritated and the itching will return.
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Fortunately, there are ways you can soothe these itchy irritations with home remedies, no prescription required. Dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, gives us the low-down on what might be causing your itchy skin and how you can treat it.
Causes of itchy skin
One big cause of itchy skin is a change in the weather, particularly as we shift to winter and the warm, humid air of summer makes way for cooler, drier air.
With your skin already drying out thanks to drier air, she says, we’re often the ones making it a little worse. “When you turn on your heat at home during the winter, that pulls more moisture out of your skin,” Dr. Khetarpal says. “Dry skin flares with the change of seasons.”
While the weather is often the culprit for dry skin, she adds that it’s not necessarily always to blame. “Eczema can be a common cause, when you get red, scaly patches of skin on the front of your elbow, back of the knee or even your hands,” she says.
One more cause of dry, itchy skin could also be your soap. “Not all soaps are created equal,” Dr. Khetarpal points out, “and some have antibacterial components or fragrances which can irritate your skin and dry it out even more.”
Can home remedies actually work?
The good news is that there are many options for getting dry skin relief that don’t require a visit to the doctor or a prescription. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will work for you but they’re all worth giving a go.
Use a humidifier
Running a humidifier at night while you sleep during the winter is a great way to return moisture to your skin, Dr. Khetarpal says.
Cool off in the shower
You may be a big fan of long, hot showers, particularly when it’s chilly outside, but Dr. Khetarpal advises making the experience a bit milder. “Just like the heat running in your house can pull out moisture from your skin, the heat from a very hot shower can do the same,” she says. “Try keeping your shower set to a lukewarm level.”
While using moisturizer may seem obvious, there are still a few tricks to keep in mind. First, be sure to apply right after a shower. “Pat dry after your lukewarm shower and apply the moisture within three to five minutes. That helps trap the water in your skin,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
It’s also important what type of moisturizer you use, she adds. “Look for moisturizers with ingredients like ceramide.” An over-the-counter ingredient that’s often marketed for eczema therapy, she says it helps restore your skin barriers and trap that water in your skin.
No, we’re not talking about the breakfast staple. We’re talking about another ingredient you can find in moisturizers. The ingredient delivers nutrients, vitamins and proteins to your skin for a soothing effect. Just be wary of moisturizers that also contain dyes or fragrances as those can irritate your skin.
A cold press – like a cold, damp washcloth or an ice pack wrapped in a towel – can help for spots of eczema or dry skin by decreasing the itch. “The cold distracts your nerves,” explains Dr. Khetarpal. “That helps prevent the cycle of scratching and further inflaming your itchy skin.”
Over-the-counter hydrocortisone can help, Dr. Khetarpal says, but there are limits. “The topical ointments you can get are 1% hydrocortisone. It’s a good start, especially for spots on the face and neck, but it’s not usually strong enough for all areas of the body. In most cases, you’d need a prescription-strength steroid.”
Over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl®, Zyrtec® and Claritin® can help but, like over-the-counter hydrocortisone, only up to a point. “Those medications, generally associated with seasonal allergies, can help reduce itching associated with eczema,” says Dr. Khetarpal. “But some have a sedating effect and they need to be used as part of a combination therapy. You’d still need other treatments like a humidifier or moisturizer because these medications alone won’t solve your issue.”
What remedies should you avoid?
There are some remedies that may seem like a good idea but should be avoided in favor of any of the remedies listed above.
Moisturizers with fragrances
As Dr. Khetarpal pointed out, fragrances and dyes in moisturizers can cause more irritation for some than soothing those dry, itchy patches.
While aloe vera can be soothing for sunburns, you shouldn’t rely on it for dry, itchy skin. “It generally has fragrances and preservatives for a longer shelf life that can cause more trouble,” says Dr. Khetarpal. “And there’s not a lot of scientific data that shows it actually helps itchy skin. It’s more for temporary relief for sunburns.”
Apple cider vinegar
While you may come across apple cider vinegar as a potential home remedy in web searches, it’s one to avoid, says Dr. Khetarpal. “Vinegar is acidic and can actually make things a lot worse
When does itchy skin become a serious problem?
At what point does is your itchy skin, though, the sign of something more serious? For Dr. Khetarpal, these symptoms are definitely worth speaking to your doctor about.
- Generalized itching: if your itching is felt all over – not just in specific spots – and felt at all times regardless of the season or time of day.
- Extended itching: if it’s been more than four weeks of trying these home remedies and there’s still not relief.
- Visible rash: if your rash is red and scaly, more than just dry skin.
- Bleeding and pain: if your skin is cracked and bleeding and causing enough pain to wake up during the night.
If you’re experiencing one or more of these, reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as possible.