By Krista Zintz
It’s that time of year again! Cozy fireplaces, hot chocolate, watching the white flakes fall — and I don’t mean snow. “In the winter, my skin gets so rough and dry that it flakes off,” complains Calgary-based lawyer Sara Lefebre, 31. “I end up slathering on moisturizer like crazy!”
Many of us experience the same patchy eczema and dry skin as Sara in the wintry months, thanks to the ubiquitous forced-air furnaces in our homes and workplaces combined with the arid outdoor climate and cold blustery winds. “We also tend to take longer, hotter showers or baths, which strip skin of its natural lipid layer,” says Dr. Michelle Withers, a community dermatologist in Burnaby, B.C. Lipids are natural oils produced by your body and are an essential part of your skin’s defence against environmental onslaughts.
Since hot water is excellent at stripping away your skin’s natural oils, Withers advises that, while not quite as relaxing as a long, hot shower, “a short, tepid shower is much less harmful.” Since most soap is quite harsh on your skin, Withers advocates using “very gentle cleansers, such as Cetaphil Cleanser or Dove for Sensitive Skin.” She also recommends “using soaps only on certain areas such as the armpits, groin and feet. The arms, legs and torso don’t need soap unless visibly dirty.”
Dr. Lisa Kellett, a dermatologist in Toronto, also recommends shorter, cooler showers or baths to help keep your skin from drying out and notes that people might have to switch to richer moisturizers to help counteract winter’s drying effects. Withers concurs. “Since the lipids in our skin need extra replenishment during the wintertime, adding more oil in the form of a heavier moisturizer will help.” If you use a lotion — which is oil in a water emulsion — you may want to switch to a cream (water in an oil emulsion) during the frosty months for added moisture retention.
Using a humidifier in winter can be helpful. But if your humidifier breaks down — as Sara’s did last February in the middle of an Alberta winter — you may have to get creative. “Our house was so dry when our humidifier broke, we had to improvise,” she says. “We put bowls of warm water throughout the house to add some moisture into the air. Not a bad stopgap solution, but we’re definitely glad to have our humidifier back. I find it really soothes my itchy skin and helps keep those little flakes at a manageable level.”
Withers, however, does not generally recommend the use of humidifiers, as the “water in the humidifier won’t add oil back into the skin.” But humidifiers are helpful in keeping the air moist, which will help your throat and nasal passages stay refreshed.
Kellett’s personal skin-care regimen includes using a gel-based antiaging moisturizer on top of a sunscreen. Yes, sunscreen! People should be wearing sunscreen year-round; it is just as important to block the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays in winter. Even on a cold day on the slopes, it can still be very sunny. Sunlight also reflects off of snow and ice, amplifying its harsh effects. Withers notes that some sunscreens are formulated in a wax-like stick, like a large lip balm tube. These tubes are great for slipping into your pocket and make reapplication easy. You don’t even need to take off your gloves!
Both Withers and Kellett recommend taking daily supplements of vitamin D during the winter months to offset the body’s natural winter slowdown of vitamin D production due to shorter sunlight hours. Vitamin D is a powerful antioxidant and a major contributor in the skin’s growth process, and it has also shown effectiveness in taming itchy, flaky skin. Kellett’s best tip for winter skin care is to use a topical vitamin A solution at night and a vitamin C solution in the morning to keep your skin healthy and glowing.
So keep that sunscreen handy, moisturize frequently and remember that the skin-friendlier climate of spring is just around the corner!