Locking in moisture gives your skin extra protection against the cold outside and dry conditions indoors
By Dr. Ian Landells
When it’s cold outside, we turn up the heat to get cozy. The result? A big difference between indoor and outdoor temperatures – and very little humidity indoors – makes dry skin more of a problem during the winter months. To prevent red, itchy, flaky or cracked skin, experts recommend the use of moisturizers.
Since moisture quickly evaporates from the skin, the best time to apply creams or lotions is right after showering or bathing, while the skin is still damp. It’s interesting to note that a moisturizer doesn’t actually add moisture – rather, it keeps existing moisture in. Generally, heavy moisturizing creams with a high oil content are more effective than lighter lotions.
As good as it feels to warm up in a hot shower or bath, the intense heat breaks downs lipid barriers in the skin and that can lead to a loss of moisture. Using warm rather than hot water and lingering a shorter amount of time in the bath is better for the skin. And remember to moisturize immediately, while the skin is still damp.
Lips and heels are two areas that tend to suffer during the winter, becoming cracked or split, and sometimes even bleeding. For lips, applying plain old petroleum jelly should do the trick, but there are also many good commercial lip balms on the market. The worst thing to do is to lick chapped lips since saliva dries and irritates them even further. And chewing, peeling or picking them can lead to an infection.
When it comes to cracked or split heels, the best bet is to use a heavier oil-based moisturizing cream or a product containing an ingredient called urea, which helps to dissolve and soften the thickened outer layer of the skin. There are two ideal times for moisturizing feet. The first is right after having a bath or shower, while the skin is still damp. The second is whenever the feet are sweating. Most people find that their feet sweat and become damp in warm, occlusive winter boots. After the boots are removed, the feet will dry slowly in the warm home environment. This can lead to cracking (much in the same way that damp wood splits as it dries out). To prevent that, moisturize your feet while they are still damp and then pull on a pair of dry cotton socks. Start this routine as soon as the temperature drops in the fall, when you change to heavier footwear.
It may sound strange, but you can seal heel cracks with Super Glue or Krazy Glue. Apply a thin line over the crack, pinch it together for 30 seconds and let it dry – and then forget about it until it wears off on its own.
An important part of skin care many people tend to forget in the winter is the daily application of sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. The CDA recommends wearing sunscreen year-round, since UVA radiation is the main cause of skin cancer and skin aging. There is little UVB radiation during the winter months because of the sun’s angle, but protection against UVA rays is still important.
People who enjoy outdoor activities such as skating, skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing should know that snow reflects ultraviolet rays, almost doubling the amount that’s hitting exposed skin. An easy way to address this, as well as dryness, is to wear a daily moisturizer with a sun protection factor of 30 or higher. Even people who don’t spend much time outside can benefit from skin protection, for instance when they sit by a sunny window or are driving as UVA can pass through glass.
Taking care of your skin in the winter may be time-consuming. It also means buying different products than the ones you use the rest of the year. But it is well worth the effort.
Skin acts as a waterproof insulating shield, guarding the body against temperature extremes, damaging sunlight and harmful chemicals. The skin exudes antibacterial substances that prevent infections and it manufactures vitamin D, which helps convert calcium into healthy bones. In short, your entire body functions more smoothly when your skin is in top condition.
If you are allergic to dust mites, mildew and mould, spending more time inside during the winter months may aggravate your symptoms. When the furnace kicks in, it sends dust and mould spores into the air. And with doors and windows closed, airborne culprits are trapped inside. Symptoms of an allergy attack include coughing, itchy eyes and nose, runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes.
Those sound a lot like the symptoms of a common cold, but there is a difference. A cold virus typically goes away after 10 days, while allergy symptoms can last weeks or even months. And the fevers, aches and pains that come with colds and flu are not present with an allergic reaction.
Scented products can also trigger allergic reactions that aggravate dry skin, leading to red, itchy or patchy spots. A cortisone or steroid cream can help to clear them up quickly; even a heavy moisturizer can speed up the healing process. Make sure a physician supervises the use of steroid creams, and note that some are too strong for areas such as the face or skin folds.
Another common allergic reaction that dermatologists treat in the winter is allergic contact dermatitis, caused by an allergen touching the skin. For example, some people are allergic to the nickel content found on watches, metal belt buckles or zippers. In these cases, the fix is simple. After treating the rash with a topical cream, the allergen can be avoided by using a Velcro strap that covers the metal back of the watch and tucking in the shirt so belt buckles and zippers don’t touch the skin.
For any of these symptoms, ask your family physician to refer you to a dermatologist to make the proper diagnosis and prescribe the appropriate treatment.
Dr. Ian Landells is the Clinical Chief at the Division of Dermatology for Eastern Health, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine and Paediatrics with the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Medical Director of Dermatology at Nexus Clinical Research, and past president of the Canadian Dermatology Association.
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