About face
Author: Sara Rider

Winter is a time of year when many of us think about our health a little more often than we usually do. We battle cedar fever starting in December, worry about colds and flu as January approaches and wonder what new bug children will bring home from school or daycare. But winter can also bring some challenges for the largest organ of your body – your skin.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the average person’s skin covers about two square yards of surface area, weighing between six and nine pounds. And this very important protective barrier can also face some challenges after a few months of winter, even in mild-weather Austin.

According to dermatologist Laura Speck, M.D. of Westlake Dermatology, winter is hard on our skin because of the drying effects of a combination of cold air and low humidity. The Mayo Clinic explains that lower temperatures and lower humidity combine with central heating, space heaters and fireplaces to remove humidity from the air.

“Moisture-loss causes our skin to look dull,” says Dr. Speck. “If we don’t properly rehydrate, our skin can become cracked and itchy. People with sensitive or eczema-prone skin often experience flare-ups during this time.”

To avoid dull, dry skin, it takes a combination of adding moisture and preventing irritation.

“The key to healthy skin in the winter is a good moisturizer for face and body,” she explains. “You may find your summertime facial moisturizer is not sufficient for winter months. For especially dry skin, a cream will be more hydrating than a lotion. Obagi’s Clenziderm Therapeutic Moisturize is non-comedogenic and glycerin-rich to soothe and protect dry facial skin. Aveno, Cetaphil and CeraVe are just a few brands that carry many excellent moisturizers for face and body.”

Winter can also be a time to try some of the newer products that can help rehydrate your skin. Dr. Speck recommends looking for products that contain ceramides.

“Ceramides are an ingredient that is being used more often in moisturizers,” explains Dr. Speck. “Ceramides are fatty molecules naturally found in the top layer of our skin. Restoring ceramides provides a protective barrier and helps our skin retain moisture. Over-the-counter products rich in ceramides include ‘Cetaphil Restoraderm and CeraVe.”

While the air both inside and outside our houses robs our skin of moisture, the Mayo Clinic cautions that the way you clean your skin before you moisturize is a big part of the battle against dry, winter skin. To keep your skin from drying out, they suggest avoiding hot showers and long, hot baths. Dr. Speck agrees.

“While a long, hot shower may sound appealing in the colder months, it will break down the lipid barriers in the skin and cause moisture loss. It’s best to take short, warm showers and moisturize afterwards,” she suggests.

The Mayo Clinic also suggests that you apply moisturizers immediately after bathing to help keep moisture in your surface skin cells.

Winter may also be a time to change how you wash your face, using a product that will dry your skin less.

“A gentle cleanser will clean facial skin without over-drying,” says Dr. Speck. “For acne-prone skin, if you regularly use a face wash containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, it can dry out your skin. You may need to alternate it with a cream-based wash for sensitive skin.”

You can also protect your skin by being careful about the soap or detergent that you use. While many of us increase our use of antibacterial hand soaps during winter to avoid germs, the Mayo Clinic cautions that they can be more drying to your skin. Deodorant soaps can also be more drying, as can some types of shampoos. Laundry detergents with dyes or perfumes can also irritate the skin.

While the NIH says that dry skin tends to be worse on arms and the lower part of our legs, there are other body parts that need special attention during winter.

“Men and women both need to remember to frequently moisturize their hands,” reminds Dr. Speck. “If your regular body lotion leaves your hands dry and cracked, try a thicker emollient.”

Even though winter brings more cloudy days than normal to central Texas, winter is also a time to remember to wear sunscreen.

“The areas that will often ‘give away’ a person’s age are the neck and the tops of the hands,” says Dr. Speck, “so don’t forget to apply sunscreen and moisturizers to these areas as well.”

If your best efforts to battle dry, dull winter skin still leave you itchy and flaky, Dr. Speck recommends a visit to your dermatologist. Or you might decide it’s time for some seasonal pampering and book skincare services at your favorite spa until the humidity soars again and the central heat is turned off until next fall.

Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.

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