Introduction to skin in winter

During the winter months our skin is subject to the damaging and drying effects of cold, windy weather and the low humidity of dry indoor heating. Our efforts to stay warm with long, hot showers and internal heating tend to suck the moisture from our body, leaving skin dry, itchy and prone to cracking. Those with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as eczema and rosacea are particularly affected. Severely dry skin can crack and bleed, creating sites that can be further irritated by soaps and clothing, and also making you more vulnerable to infection. Thus, it is just as important to take extra care of your skin during this season as it is in the summertime.

The skin as a protective barrier

The skin is the largest organ of the body. Some of its primary functions are to act as a protective barrier against the external environment, as well as prevent water loss. The outer-most layer of the skin, known as the stratum corneum (SC), plays an instrumental role in protecting skin against moisture loss. The SC consists of a layer of cells surrounded by lipids (oils) such as ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids.These lipids determine the moisturisation levels of the skin.

Anatomy of the skin

The skin produces less of these oils during the winter months, thus making the skin more susceptible to abnormal dryness, also known as winter xerosis or winter itch. Xerosis is characterized by roughness, itching, scaling and flaking.

Dry skin tends to be more of a problem in older people because the skin is less able to hold its moisture, and the number of oil-producing sebaceous glands decreases with ageing.

Dry skin also occurs more frequently among people who wash their hands several times a day, as this strips the skin of its natural oils.

Tips for preventing dry winter skin

The key to preventing dry skin is keep the moisture locked in. There are several precautions you can take to avoid dry, itchy winter skin and maintain soft moist skin during the cold season.

1. Cut down on long, hot baths

Skin health in winterHot water removes the skin’s natural oils very quickly, so having a long, hot shower can really deplete the skin of its natural moisture and leave it extremely dry.Use warm water instead, and reduce the time spent in the bath or shower to a maximum of 10-15 minutes.

In addition, try using a moisturising shower gel, or soaps that contain moisturisers. Harsh, drying soaps tend to strip the skin and wash away the body’s oils. Choose mild soaps that are non-alkaline and have added oils and fats (super fatted soaps). Super-fatted soaps are recommended because they have extra amounts of fatty acids (e.g. cocoa butter, coconut oil or lanolin). If you want to soak in a bath, use bath oils and consider adding colloidal oatmeal to your bath. This can help soothe and heal the skin.

After bathing, pat your skin dry (as opposed to rubbing) so that it retains some dampness. Moisturise within 3 minutes of stepping out of the shower.Moisturising while the skin is still slightly wet traps the moisture in and helps to reduce water lost through evaporation.

2. Moisturise regularly

Skin health in winterThis is one of the most effective ways of managing dry skin. Moisturisers bind and retain water, and act as a seal that traps moisture in and prevents water loss.Moisturise liberally several times a day, preferably with an oil-based cream. The oilier and thicker the moisturiser, the better it protects the skin from losing moisture.

Moisturisers that are in an ointment form consist of an emulsion of 80% oil and 20% water, and are the most protective. Such water-in-oil emulsions form a protective layer on the skin, making it more effective than a cream or lotion. Lotions contain about 50% water, so are not the best at preventing moisture loss. They need to be reapplied more frequently.

Look for ingredients such as petrolatum, glycerin, mineral oil, linoleic acid, ceramides or dimethicone, which act to prevent moisture loss.Moisturisers containing alpha-hydroxy acid and urea help to soften the skin and remove surface scale.If dryness is severe, a prescription or over-the-counter moisturiser containing lactic acid can be used.

Lips also need to be protected, as they are easily prone to cracking and bleeding. Use a lip balm or sunscreen. For flaky, dry lips, a cream with a vitamin A derivative (retinol) will help reduce the build up of dry dead skin.

Exposed areas such as the face and hands are most affected by the elements, so focus on extra protection for these areas. The hands and feet have fewer sebaceous glands and are therefore naturally less oily than the rest of the body.

3. Use a humidifier in the home or office

This helps to add moisture to the air. Humidity levels of 30-40% are ideal for keeping moisture in your skin and preventing itching and cracking. Use humidifiers in rooms where you spend the most time, such as the bedroom and office.

4. Choose skin friendly fabrics

Skin health in winterAlthough woolly jumpers keep you nice and warm, they can be very irritating and can exacerbate dry, itchy skin. Instead, try to wear layers of other natural fibres (e.g. cotton or silk) which allow the skin to breathe and avoid overheating and sweating. In addition, try to avoid washing your clothes with detergents containing perfumes.

When going outdoors, remember to wear gloves to protect hands from the bitter, cold winds. If your clothes and especially socks and gloves get wet, remove them immediately as they can irritate the skin.

5. Turn down the heat

Hot air causes the blood vessels to dilate, which can stimulate itchiness. Cool air is more skin friendly, so turn down your heating and give your skin a break.

6. Hydrate from the inside

Drinking water is beneficial for those who are dehydrated but if you are not dehydrated, drinking water most probably won’t have an effect on your skin’s moisture levels.

Healthy skin can be encouraged by including certain foods in your diet, such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and plums, and foods containing essential fatty acids such as salmon, walnuts and canola oil.

7. Don’t forget the sunscreen

Skin health in winterJust because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can forget about the sun. The sun remains powerful all year round and is particularly glaring around snowy areas, so use at least an SPF 30+ sun lotion on exposed skin before you go out.

The majority of dry skin problems can be resolved with simple measures. If you have a more serious skin condition such as ichthyosis or psoriasis prescription creams may be needed, so see your GP if you find your condition is worsening. Dry skin can sometimes lead to dermatitis, an inflammation of the skin or even cellulitis, a serious bacterial infection. This may require treatment with topical steroid containing creams.

More information

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