It happens every winter. As soon as the temps dip, your skin dries, flakes, itches, and cracks. Why? First, the air temperature is cold, so less blood comes to the skin’s surface. Instead, it stays close to your core to keep your internal organs warm. “The result is we have fewer nutrients going to the skin, which leaves it dry and susceptible to the elements,” says Thomas Rogers, ND, a professor of naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. Second, you may get less fresh air, spending more time indoors in dry, recirculated indoor heat with little or no humidity. The skin loses moisture and becomes dry, cracked, and itchy.
But your skin doesn’t have to be that way. When days turn chillier and thick sweaters come out of closets, it may also be time to protect your body—not just with a change of clothing, but with a change in your skin care routine. “The skin is the largest and most visible organ of the human body,” says Andrea Cambio, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. “It acts as a barrier to the environment, so in every season it is essential to protect what protects you.” Here are simple and natural ways to keep your skin in top condition until warmer months arrive.
Although you may have a foolproof cleansing recipe for the summer months, you’d be wise to change your bathing method when the seasons change. Check out these winter tips before you take to the tub.
Keep showers short. It’s tempting to take long, hot soaks on cold nights, but spending extra time in the water may do more harm than good. A hot shower or bath will overdry the skin, says Cambio, and make you feel itchy. It’s a good idea to switch to short (five-minute), lukewarm showers to keep skin clean but not parched. If you take a bath, use herbs with emollient, oily qualities that soothe the skin (see “Healing Ingredients").
Time your washing. The body parts that get the most water time are hands, which is why dry, cracked fingers are a big winter complaint. “When you wash frequently, it strips off the outer layer of skin, and you lose moisture more quickly,” says Rogers. Although you’ll want to wash your hands regularly—it’s your primary defense against infection during cold and flu season—you can save your skin by choosing the right soap and washing just long enough. “Generally 10 to 15 seconds is the recommended washing time to rid the nasties,” says Dhai Barr, ND, a Portland, Oregon-based naturopathic doctor. Also, use lukewarm water and a gentle, nondrying cleanser. Soaps often contain detergents such as sodium laurel sulfate, an irritant that can exacerbate already sensitive skin, says Cambio.
Choose a mild face cleanser. When washing your face, use a nondrying, fragrance-free cleanser and rinse thoroughly with plain, lukewarm water. Friendly, emollient ingredients to look for in a cleanser, according to Barr, are vegetable-derived glyceryl laurate and sodium stearoyl lactylate. “People expect a good lather to clean their faces, but a nondrying cleanser may not suds up,” says Barr. What is important is that the cleanser gets the dirt off and out of pores effectively. And after washing, your face shouldn’t feel like it’s about to crack.
It’s easy to remember to smooth on lotion in summer when you’re showing off more skin. But it’s important to keep up good moisturizing routines for winter. Here’s how.
Apply body lotion when wet. What’s the first thing you do when you step out of the tub? If you said towel off, you’re missing a crucial step. Before you dry off completely, remember to rub on moisturizer. “By applying a moisturizer within a few minutes of stepping out of the shower, you’ll trap in water and hydrate the skin,” says Cambio. Although the same thinking applies to summer showers, it’s more important in the winter, when your skin is prone to irritation. As a rule of thumb, Cambio suggests using thicker creams in the winter and lighter lotions in the summer.
Use anti-inflammatories. Dehydrated skin contributes to inflammation and irritation and thus continues the cycle of dry skin, says Margot Longenecker, ND, a naturopathic physician in North Haven, Connecticut. Many topical moisturizers contain anti-inflammatory ingredients to soothe skin. Good ingredients to look for in creams (thicker and richer than lotion for more irritated skin) and lotions (hydrating and lubricating for minor dry skin) are shea butter, cocoa butter, soy oil, sunflower oil, almond oil, and olive oil.
Topical emollients are great, but you also need to take care of your skin from the inside out. “A diet rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids will strengthen cells and keep them working to effectively allow nutrients in and keep toxins out,” says Longenecker.
Take in essential fatty acids. When you eat essential fatty acids, they incorporate into the skin and stabilize the protective membranes. “Essential fatty acids are the building blocks of fats and oils that our bodies do not make,” says Longenecker. “They also work as anti-inflammatories.” Two great sources are cold-water fish and flaxseed. She suggests eating wild cold-water fish, such as salmon and sardines, three to four times a week. For flax, consume 2 to 4 tablespoons of ground flax or 1 to 2 grams of the oil form daily.
Eat antioxidant foods. In the winter it’s important to eat foods rich in antioxidants (colorful fruits and vegetables) and to include antioxidant supplements, such as green tea extract, vitamins A, C , and E, zinc, alpha-lipoic acid, Co-Q10, and soy. “Antioxidants help prevent cell oxidation,” says Barr, as well as help ward off free radical damage. Early oxidation and free radicals are responsible for the deterioration of the skin’s support system (elastin and collagen). Taking a daily vitamin will help keep the skin in peak condition for hard winter weather.
Drink plenty of water. And don’t forget to drink enough H20. The amount you should drink each day depends on your environment, your exercise routines, and your health conditions, but a general guideline, according to Barr, is that each day you drink one-half your body weight in ounces of water. “Because we don’t feel hot in winter, we don’t think about drinking water. But this is a simple way to keep skin hydrated,” says Barr.
The sun’s rays are present even though it’s winter. Remember that the winter sun can be just as potent—and damaging—as summer sun. Sunscreens should be applied about half an hour before sun exposure.
Wear the right SPF sunblock. Barr advises using a daily sunscreen containing SPF 15 or higher, regardless of the season. “Even though it’s cold outside, the sun is just as bright,” she says. It’s especially important when participating in winter sports or outdoor activities because snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun, magnifying its harmful UV rays, says Barr. Also, remember that some of these sports take place at higher altitudes, where there is less atmosphere to block the rays. In those areas, Barr suggests using broad-spectrum sunscreen (blocking UVA and UVB) with an SPF of 30 or higher.
A note about vitamin D: The vitamin is a pro-hormone produced from sun exposure, according to Barr. “However, as we age we don’t as easily convert the sunlight to vitamin D, so we need to supplement vitamin D regardless of how much sun we get,” says Barr. She recommends 1,000 mg for anyone older than 50.
Choose healthy ingredients. When choosing a sunscreen, look for the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which block ultraviolet light. Both of these minerals are nonorganic and therefore not absorbed by skin, she says; they simply reflect the rays off your skin.
Many sunscreens contain the organic ingredient PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) that is part of the B vitamin family and is absorbed by the body. Some people have PABA sensitivities or allergies and choose PABA-free products.
Put on SPF lip balm. In winter, contact with saliva followed by exposure to chilly winds causes lips to dry and crack easily. Wearing a lip balm with an SPF of 15 or 30 protects the sensitive skin on your lips. Barr recommends keeping tubes of balm handy—in your pocket, car, purse, desk drawer, medicine cabinet—so it’s easy to apply often. Seal in moisture with a balm made from natural oil-based products (because you’re essentially eating it). Some experts suggest avoiding petroleum-based products because they can dehydrate lips.
Alonna Friedman is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.