An insight into itchy skin and how to help to prevent it.
There are many possible causes of itchy skin, but whether it’s the result of general dry skin, a particular skin allergy, seasonal skin issues related to summer or winter, or another ongoing skin problem like eczema, there are various ways to relieve it. Depending on the cause, there may be simple steps you can take to prevent it. Taking a closer look at the possible cause of your itchy skin is the best place to start.
What causes itchy skin?
Your skin is an incredible organ – in fact it’s the largest organ in your body. Waterproof, flexible and strong, it constantly renews itself with the cells of the top layer – the epidermis – regenerating and shedding every two-four weeks.
So why does it go through itchy phases? As the body’s barrier between you and your external environment, your skin has a lot to contend with on a daily basis. Changing weather, bumps and scrapes, air conditioning, shower gels and soaps, long baths, and varying levels of hydration from the water you drink can all have an impact.
Common causes of itchy skin
Dry skin type– we all have a certain skin type, and if you have a tendency towards dry skin, you’re probably all too familiar with itchiness. Dry skin is caused by a low level of sebum, the oily substance that protects your epidermis from losing water. The lower water content leads to a slower shedding of old cells, giving it a dull, flaky appearance, and sometimes leading to sore, cracked skin.
Dehydration– itchy skin that looks ashy and papery and feels tight is most likely due to the level of water in your body. This is different to dry skin, which is the result of low levels of oily sebum, although it’s possible to experience both at the same time.
Hormonal changes– women and girls might notice changes in their skin related to their menstrual cycle. Itchy skin is also a common issue during pregnancy and after the menopause, as hormones surge and fall dramatically.
The weather – hot or cold!- a common cause of itchy skin in summer is prickly heat. The result of sweat glands getting blocked and unable to release sweat from the skin, it is characterised by small red spots in a rash anywhere on the body. Winter can bring its own set of skin problems, with cold, dry air giving your skin less chance to retain water.
Allergies – if you have a sudden outbreak of red, itchy skin, you might have hives – the angry-looking sign of an elevated level of histamine in the skin. Triggers include certain foods, insect bites, pollen, dust mites, chemicals, items made of latex, and medicines.
Ongoing skin conditions– itchiness is a symptom of various skin problems including dandruff, eczema and psoriasis. If you’re experiencing ongoing itching, it’s best to see your GP.
How to relieve itchy skin
Whatever the cause of your uncomfortable itchy skin, there are several ways to relieve it.
Applying a moisturiser to the affected area can really help, but it’s important to choose an unperfumed, gentle one that won’t irritate your skin further. Moisturisers work by delivering a boost to the water content of your skin, and coating it with oils that do a similar job to sebum, retaining essential water within the skin.
Surprisingly, your style choices can also make a difference. Avoid synthetic fabrics and tight clothes which can dry out your skin further. Opt for loose cotton clothes instead, and in winter, keep warm with layers and make sure you have a pair of gloves at the ready to protect your hands from the chilly dry air.
What about just scratching? As tempting as is, resist as much as you can! Scratching can damage your skin, especially if you have long or sharp nails. Patting or tapping the itchy area can provide relief, or try holding a cool, damp cloth on your skin instead.
5 tips for preventing itchy skin
Building skin-friendly habits into your everyday routine is the best way to look after your skin and prevent itchiness from starting.
- Take cool or lukewarm baths or showers instead of hot ones
- Make sure your showers and baths are less than 20 minutes long
- Avoid using scented soaps and strong household cleaners – and wear rubber gloves when washing up
- Moisturise regularly - applying a suitable unperfumed moisturiser every day will help combat dryness and the resulting itchiness
- Stay hydrated and avoid spicy food, alcohol and caffeine, which can all exacerbate dry skin