While the chill of winter can be a welcome respite after a long, hot summer, winter weather can wreak havoc on your skin, leaving it itchy and dry.
But there are steps you can take to prevent this unwelcome side effect of the season.
UNC Medical Center dermatologist Puneet Singh Jolly, MD, PhD, says it all comes down to hydration.
Think back to your high school science class, he says.
“Water wants to be in equilibrium, so water will flow from a highly concentrated area to a low-concentration area and will eventually stop flowing when it’s equal in all parts. The same thing happens with your skin,” he says.
When it’s warm and humid outside, the water content in the air and in your skin are roughly the same, and there’s nothing driving the water out of your skin. In winter, you might experience transepidermal water loss, which means water is lost through the skin.
“When it gets cold, there’s less water content in the air, so it sucks out the water content from your skin,” Dr. Jolly says.
Dr. Jolly offers these tips to prevent that water loss and avoid dry, itchy skin.
1. Slather on the cream.
Your skin is like a brick-and-mortar structure. To help prevent water loss, you can enhance the “mortar,” which is the top layer of your skin. And the way to do that is to moisturize.
“When you moisturize, you’re adding an extra layer of mortar on top of the skin to prevent water loss from your skin,” Dr. Jolly says.
But not all moisturizers are created equal.
“People like to use lotions because they feel light and are not very greasy, but they’re not as effective as products you can scoop out of the jar, because those are thicker,” Dr. Jolly says. “So a thick cream that you put on your skin is a much more effective barrier, or mortar, than a lotion.”
Dr. Jolly tells his patients to try CeraVe, Cetaphil or Aveeno products. And he suggests moisturizing several times a day.
“There’s no rule that says you can only moisturize once,” Dr. Jolly says. “I’ll tell patients who are really dry to get in the habit of doing it at least twice a day, if not more.”
Also, be sure to use a noncomedogenic cream on your face. A comedo is a clogged hair follicle (pore) in the skin; some creams clog your pores and cause acne. Look for face creams that are labeled noncomedogenic.
“If you start to use a really thick cream or ointment on your face like Vaseline, you’ll get clogged pores and lots of whiteheads,” Dr. Jolly says.
2. Turn off the steam.
Who doesn’t love a hot bath on a cold winter’s eve? Your skin, actually, because hot water evaporates quicker and to a greater extent than lukewarm water.
“So you take a hot shower and you feel great while you’re there, but when you get out of the shower and dry off that hot water, it evaporates. And it also sucks out some of that water content from your skin,” Dr. Jolly says.
He recommends showering with lukewarm water instead. And when you get out, pat yourself dry and lather on a thick cream to lock in moisture.
3. Consider a humidifier.
When the temperatures drop, you turn up the thermostat. Unfortunately for your skin, when you turn on the heat, it pulls the moisture out of the air.
“Your heater is on, and you have even less moisture content in that air than you do in the cold air outside,” Dr. Jolly says.
While you can’t turn off your heat, you can use a humidifier to help add moisture back into your home’s air.
“If you know that you get drier when you’re sleeping at night, then before bedtime grab the humidifier and put it in your bedroom,” Dr. Jolly says. “When patients do this, they say they didn’t feel as dry or itchy when they woke up.”
4. Grab some lip balm.
Cracked, chapped lips are another winter weather side effect. Your lips don’t have sebaceous glands, which keep your skin moisturized. Also, they’re more exposed than other parts of your body.
While you may be tempted to lick chapped lips to provide relief, Dr. Jolly says that’s a bad idea.
“When you lick your lips and your saliva is on your lips and it’s cold outside, that saliva evaporates really, really quickly, and it pulls with it some of the normal water content inside of the skin of the lips,” Dr. Jolly says.
Instead, Dr. Jolly recommends using ChapStick, Vaseline lip products or another balm multiple times a day.
“Nowadays, they even make it with sunscreen built in,” Dr. Jolly says. “So you’re protecting your lips from the sun and you’re moisturized.”
5. Take special care of cracked skin.
If your skin gets so dry that it cracks, you can get irritant dermatitis, a condition in which environmental irritants get into the skin.
“All of a sudden it itches, stings or hurts,” Dr. Jolly says. “And just like you should use ChapStick regularly for cracked lips, it’s the same recommendation for your hands. Apply a moisturizer several times a day.”
Sometimes, you may need a medication to calm the inflammation and allow the skin to heal.
6. Drop the loofah.
If you exfoliate your skin in the winter, you make it more prone to dryness and irritation, Dr. Jolly says.
Limit exfoliation to one to three times a week, and avoid products that have beads or grains that can create tiny tears in your skin.
If you’re concerned about dry skin, talk to your dermatologist. If you don’t have one, find a doctor near you.