We can’t let near-freezing temperatures keep us from running, can we? Yes, we know about layers and hats and other things to keep us warm. But what about our skin? No matter how we cover up during winter, we need to treat them like the vital organ they are.
“Skin is one part of your immune system,” says Dr. Alyssa Daniel of Novant Health Dermatology – SouthPark. “One of its big functions is to be a barrier against invaders, like bacteria and infections.”
We’re not talking about COVID here, though much is still being learned about its spread. The most common culprit is eczema — that dry, itchy skin that can get red and cracked, and make us miserable. When that happens, the immune system is off-balance because our skin’s natural moisturizers dry up. Once dried, your skin loses some immune function.
“In winter, the dry atmosphere lacks humidity,” says Dr. Daniel. “We have very little humidity in the air and that leads to dry skin, because we’re evaporating the natural moisture in our skin.” Your skin simply can’t keep up with demands in winter, so you have to depend on store-bought moisturizers to do the job.
Wash, Moisturize, Repeat
The first step to protecting your skin is prevention. “Make sure before going out you’re giving your skin the best shot not to get dry,” says Dr. Daniel. That means using a gentle cleanser that is fragrance-free and hypoallergenic. Cleaning skin before moisturizing removes dead skin cells, and allows skin to breathe.
As you step out of the shower or rinse your face and hands after washing, seal some of that leftover moisture in with a moisturizer or emollient barrier. A moisturizer is creamier and adds moisture to skin, where an emollient is thicker and prevents water loss.
“You’re looking for moisturizers that are non-comedogenic,” says Dr. Daniel. “There are no oils likely to clog pores.” Choose moisturizers with ceramides, a natural moisturizer made by your skin. Aveeno, Cerave, Cetaphil, and Palmer’s all make lotions with ceramides, and are recommended for oily skin.
Emollients soften skin and prevent moisture loss. Again, avoid oils that can clog pores, or alcohol that can dry skin or evaporate too easily. Some surprising choices that work? Vaseline, Burt’s Bees, and aloe vera are all low in oils. Dr. Daniel also likes Aquafor. Use them generously around the nose and lips, which are most likely to be exposed to cold, dry air.
Your hands deserve as much attention as your face, because they are usually the first place to show wear in the winter — especially this year.
“Right now we’re over-washing them to keep them clean and COVID-free,” says Dr. Daniel. “We’re using a lot of hand sanitizer, too.” Alcohol-based (60% or more) hand sanitizers are effective against COVID, but dry the skin. Keep lotions by the sink to replenish the skin’s moisture after washing.
After moisturizing, put on some cotton gloves. If you’re just fixing dry skin overnight, socks will do. If you’re going for a run, cotton gloves are less irritating to sensitive skin than synthetics. And don’t forget to cover your face! Masks we’re all wearing for our health are doing double duty by keeping our skin and lungs warm. Just make sure you take it off and wash your face — AND your mask — as soon as you get home.
Top it Off
Your hands and face aren’t the only part of your skin that get dry and itchy during winter. Do you notice that your head itches sometimes, too? That’s normal, says Dr. Daniel.
“Your hair produces oils, and can cause seborrheic dermatitis, or a ‘subderm’ rash,” says Dr. Daniel. “Excess oil production leads to a dandruff condition.” Wearing a hat during extreme temperatures can cut down on the irritation. Shampoos formulated for dandruff or dry scalp, like those including zinc, can bring relief.
Stay consistent in your washing, moisturizing, and covering up, and your body’s largest immune barrier will stay healthier all winter long.