Is there a sillier part of the body than the elbow? It’s for the best that it’s so hard to see those odd, wrinkly, stretchy, pointy things unless we try really hard. And yet, if neglected—particularly as the cold air of winter begins to dry us out from head to toe—those elbows can begin to cry out for help.
Doctors call the skin on the outside of the elbow an “extensor surface,” which refers to all the places that have to stretch when you bend your joints (like your knees and knuckles too). That’s why they’re a completely different texture from the rest of your skin. Since most humans do almost everything with their arms, the elbows get rubbed, bumped, and leaned on a whole lot. If that elbow skin begins to itch or hurt, or you can see they’re looking really dark or bumpy (when you crane your neck and bend your arm just so), here’s what you’ll need to do:
1. Don’t scratch, pick, or rub it.
“A lot of people, especially with symptoms like scaling, want to pick the skin off,” says dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D. “That’s aggravating it and makes the skin worse.”
And pay attention to the ways you might be inadvertently irritating your elbows too. “There are plenty of things people do without realizing how it may be affecting their skin,” says Bella Schneider, founder of LaBelle Day Spas & Salons in California. “For example, not wearing SPF while outdoors, using detergents with harsh ingredients, taking hot showers, applying abrasive scrubs, or waxing your arms. Additionally, working at a desk can cause a lot of friction to the elbow area, which is sometimes unavoidable.”
2. If you have bumps or scales, see a dermatologist.
You can google your symptoms all you want, but you run the risk of misdiagnosing yourself. If you’ve got something like psoriasis or eczema (both of which commonly appear on elbows and knees) and don’t know it, your self-prescribed treatment might irritate your skin even more. Bumps can be anything from totally benign keratosis pilaris or granuloma annulare, to something like dermatitis herpetiformis, which is an autoimmune disease that may be caused by a gluten allergy.
“It’s always good to get a diagnosis,” says dermatologist Doris Day, M.D. “The dermatologist can take a look and figure out if there’s an underlying cause.”
3. Moisturize with a keratolytic lotion.
That’s a fancy term for ingredients such as lactic acid, urea, and salicylic acid. “Those are going to help take off some of the surface layers of the skin, but they also have a humectant property so they will bring moisture,” Shah says. Just make sure that you really don’t have psoriasis or eczema, she warns, because keratolytics will irritate those conditions.
There’s no cure for keratosis pilaris, that gooseflesh you might have on your upper arms and legs caused by ingrown hairs, but like with elbows, gently exfoliating and moisturizing improves the situation greatly.
For arms and elbows, Day likes to recommend Amlactin Ultra (with lactic acid) and, for a more moisturizing effect, SkinFix 12-hour miracle ointment. She also suggests exfoliating with something like these Buff and Brighten pads from SweetSpot Labs.
4. Hit the spa.
“There are plenty of spa treatments that will help with dry elbows,” Schneider says. “When treating dry elbows and arms, I recommend starting out with a gentle exfoliant; a microdermabrasion ointment, such as biafine or shea butter; a coconut- or olive oil-based cream; and of course, SPF.”
5. Choose the right natural remedies.
For those of you who like to get homemade skin-care recipes from the internet, Day has some guidelines: “Avocado oil, coconut oil, or olive oil can help soften that skin,” she says. “I wouldn’t rub lemon on it, because that can make you more sensitive.”
The natural cure might be even simpler than you expect—like Schneider’s tip to wear cotton shirts under those cozy-but-scratchy wool sweaters. When winter comes, here’s how she protects herself: “I make sure to drink plenty of water, cut down on my shower time, and avoid products with fragrance.”
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.