Many people complain of dry, flaky skin in winter. Winter's dry cold air and low humidity can dry out even the oiliest of skin. Some people, however, are genetically predisposed to have scaly skin, a condition called ichthyosis; "ichthy" means fish-like and refers to a scaly appearance of the skin.
Consider Ichthyosis in Your Parents
Ichthyosis vulgaris is an inherited condition. It is autosomal dominant, which means that if either your mother or father has the disease, there is a 50 percent chance you will get it. In addition to having scaly, dry skin, people with ichthyosis are more susceptible to eczema and suffer significantly from dry, itchy skin in the wintertime.
Watch for Symptoms Early in Life
Ichthyosis usually presents in childhood. People who have the disease will have it for their entire life. Most people who have ichthyosis have thick, square or diamond shaped scales. The shins show the scales most prominently, but it can be apparent on the arms, chest, back and even the face in severe cases. Many people with ichthyosis also have rough, sandpaper-like skin on their arms and thighs called keratosis pilaris. These areas are often red, itchy and irritated.
Soak and Slather
The best way to treat ichthyosis is to soak the skin in warm water and then slather your still damp skin with a cream moisturizer. You can add epsom salts or add moisturizers like colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno Bath) to your bath; salts and moisturizers help your skin absorb the water and lock in the moisture more effectively. People with ichthyosis should never use bath bubbles, which can strip precious oils off your skin and leave it even more dry and flaky. Using a loofah to help exfoliate can be helpful, but should be done gently to avoid excess irritation. Often moisturizers with natural acids such as alpha hydroxy acids (found in products like AmLactin Cream or Eucerin Body Creme) should be used to help dissolve the thick scales, leaving the skin smoother and softer.
Consider Prescription Medications as a Solution
People with severe forms of ichthyosis sometimes need prescription medications. The underlying principle is to make the skin less "sticky" and therefore shed more easily. Sometimes topical retinoids such as tretinoin or tazarotene can be used. These are the same prescriptions used to treat acne and work by breaking up the keratin and allowing the dead skin cells to fall off. For people who have ichthyosis and eczema, prescription topical steroid creams and ointments can be used to treat itching and inflammation.