As soon as the humidity and temperature drops almost everyone feels like they need a moisturizer for their skin. With winter really upon us it’s probably time to change-up your skin routine a bit, if you haven’t already. Treating dry and sensitized winter skin isn’t that hard. Tweak your home skincare routine a little in order to restore moisture and balance to your skin.
Why Your Skin Becomes So Dry in the Winter
For a technical explanation on why our skin feels so dry and irritated during the winter, for those who like that, I’ll turn to the Skin Inc. article Understanding and Fighting Winter Itch by Dr. Ahmed Abdullah (if you want a less scientific explanation skip ahead):
Physiology of the stratum corneum
To understand skin hydration, it’s necessary to look at key components of the stratum corneum—the outermost layer of the epidermis that makes skin impermeable, and protects deeper skin tissue and the body at large from bacterial invasion and other environmental aggressors.
The stratum corneum is comprised of corneocytes, which are flattened, dead skin cells; desmosomes, the proteins that hold the corneocytes together; and intercellular lipids. Under a microscope, these components appear to be arranged in a brick-and-mortar manner, with corneocytes serving as the bricks, connected by desmosomes, and lipids playing the role of mortar that surrounds and protects the corneocytes. Collectively, these components create a physical wall intended to prevent moisture loss. However, the individual roles of corneocytes and lipids are equally important.
Corneocytes are mainly composed of keratin, which holds water and gives skin its strength, along with various other compounds called natural moisturizing factors (NMFs). As humectants, NMFs not only hold water, but also attract it; thus, they are essential to the skin’s flexibility and water-holding capabilities. However, they’re water-soluble, which is why skin dries out upon extended water contact from showering, bathing, swimming and hand-washing.
intercellular lipids are comprised of ceramides, free fatty acids and cholesterol. In the stratum corneum, their role is to prevent the loss of NMFs from within the corneocytes. On the topmost layer of skin, they combine with sweat to form the thin acid mantle—the chemical barrier that kills bacteria and regulates moisture loss. What’s more, lipids lubricate the skin and, as such, are a major factor in ensuring smooth texture.
Environmental impact on the stratum corneum
For the stratum corneum to properly protect the body, it must be elastic and flexible, which is only possible when the skin is properly hydrated. Normal, healthy skin is 20–35% water. Each day, it loses approximately a pint of water through transepidermal water loss (TEWL), the continuous process by which water leaves the body and enters the atmosphere via evaporation and diffusion. However, when humidity drops, as it does in cold-weather months, there’s a dramatic increase in TEWL as the dry air pulls moisture from the skin. When the skin’s water content drops below 10%, it begins drying and brings discomfort characterized by redness, itchiness and flakiness. With less water in the skin, the production of NMFs becomes impaired and lipid levels fall, setting in motion a vicious cycle that is hard to remedy.
Add to the mix ongoing or prolonged exposure to irritants, such as soap and even water, and you have a far worse situation. This exposure causes the skin’s acid mantle to disintegrate, which further increases the rate of TEWL and decreases lipid levels. The result is even drier skin that may crack and even become infected.
With less water and fewer lipids to lubricate and protect it, skin no longer exfoliates properly. This is what results in the excessive buildup of dead cells on the skin’s surface, giving it an ashy appearance. It also results in an overall degradation of skin health; skin can no longer properly heal itself.
The short, and very easy to understand, explanation about the cause of dry skin during winter? I’ll quote Barney Kenet, MD, a dermatologist from New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center, from the WebMD article What’s Causing Your Dry Skin?:
“Dry air is probably the most common cause of dry skin, especially during the winter,” says Kenet, “It draws the moisture right out of the skin.” Dry skin during winter even gets its own name: winter itch.
While cold, harsh weather does dry your skin, another big problem in the winter lies indoors — the dry heat churned out by your furnace. (During the summer, air conditioning can have a similar effect.)
Tips to Fix Dry Winter Skin
First and foremost, if your skin is feeling dry, tight, and even itchy – simply moisturize. Start off moisturizing twice a day, in the morning and the evening. If you feel like you need to moisturize more than do that. Be sure to apply your moisturizer to damp skin. Once again according to Dr. Kenet in the WebMD article:
“You have to put on moisturizer when your skin is still damp,” says Kenet, author of How to Wash Your Face. “That way, the moisturizer is trapping the moisture still on your skin.” Your skin shouldn’t be sopping wet — just pat yourself dry with a towel and put it on. Let it soak in for a few minutes, and then towel off the excess, Kenet says.
It is especially important to moisturize your hands multiple times during the day. If you use hand sanitizer get one that is a moisturizing formulation.
Don’t take long, hot showers or baths. Limit your time in the shower so that the warm water doesn’t further dry out your skin. Don’t use drying bar soaps when you shower. Switch to milder and thicker shower washes during the winter.
Invest in a humidifier for your home and even for your office.
Bundle up when you go outside so that your skin isn’t directly exposed to the air.
Eat Omega-3 rich foods like cold water fish, walnuts, and flax in order to fortify the skin’s natural oil retaining barriers.
Don’t put away your sunscreen! Sun protection is as important in the winter as it is in the summer.
Finding the Right Moisturizer
I’ve been using Trader Joe’s Midsummer’s Night Cream moisturizer for years on my body after the shower and find it to be a very cost-effective and great body moisturizer. When I need an extra boost of moisture for my face I like to use a B5 serum. GloTherapeutics and Skinceuticals make good ones. You could also use a moisturizing mask once or twice a week to add moisture back to the skin. For more product ideas check out this post by FutureDerm about her favorite winter skincare products.
You actually don’t need to spend a lot of money on a moisturizer in order to find an effective one. Once you settle on one use it often for the best results.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Prevent and Soothe Chapped Winter Hands – WebMD
- What’s Causing Your Dry Skin? – WebMD
- Understanding and Fighting Winter Itch – Skin Inc.
- Forecast: Dry and Flaky – DaySpa Magazine
- Fighting Back Against Dry Skin – WebMD
- 7 Tips to Soothe Your Dry, Itchy Skin – WebMD
Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art