Curing your winter skin woes

Signs of dry skin will appear when the water content on the outer surface of your skin falls below 10%. The wind, cold weather and dry air will further dry out your skin. Long hot showers and detergents can also worsen your dry skin by stripping your protective natural skin oil, making your skin less able to retain moisture.

Are icy winters and indoor heating leaving your skin dry and itchy?

Cold weather can have a profound effect on the condition of your skin, and can aggravate pre-existing skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis. Sub-zero temperatures, wind, dry air and indoor heating can all lead to what's known as the “winter itch”.

Winter itch is caused by very dry skin, occurring most commonly on the legs, arms, hands and torso. Your skin ends up looking and feeling tight, rough, dull and flaky. Dry skin can accentuate the finest lines. In some cases, your skin may chap and even crack, especially in over-exposed areas such as hands and lips. As the term implies, winter itch causes the skin to feel itchy and leaves you desperately scratching for relief.

Under normal conditions, the surface of the skin has a water content between 10% and 30%. Sebum, your skin’s natural oil, helps minimize water loss and acts as a natural protective barrier against harsh environmental conditions. When the humidity dips below 60%, which is often the case in heated indoor environments, your skin loses more moisture than it can replace. Signs of dry skin will appear when the water content on the outer surface of your skin falls below 10%. The wind, cold weather and dry air will further dry out your skin. Long hot showers and detergents can also worsen your dry skin by stripping your protective natural skin oil, making your skin less able to retain moisture.

So what can you do to prevent and combat winter itch? There are two strategies to maintaining healthy skin during the winter. Firstly, re-moisturize your skin. And secondly, minimize the loss of moisture.

Fighting the winter itch

There are basically two types of skin moisturizers:

  • Emulsions are suspensions of oily substances and water, such as creams and lotions.
  • Balms are oily substances and waxes, such as ointments.

Emulsions

Emulsions are usually white. They disappear when rubbed into the skin and don't leave a greasy feeling. The water in an emulsion instantly hydrates while the oils help seal water in the skin. The oils will also help minimize further water loss. Emollients are not as rich in oils as balms and are best used for the face and body.

Balms

Balms are usually beige. They are thick, don't get absorbed into the skin quickly, and have a greasy consistency that feels slippery. Over time, if rubbed in well, the skin will absorb the balm and the greasy feeling will subside. Being waterless, balms moisturize the skin indirectly. The waxes (such as beeswax) seal the oils in the skin, creating a protective barrier. This barrier helps the skin re-hydrate by minimizing water loss. It also protects the skin from losing more precious moisture when exposed to harsh environmental elements. Balms are much richer in oils than emollients and are best used for problematic areas such as lips, hands and feet. They can even protect the skin after washing.

Other skin-saving tips

  • Wash with warm, not hot, water and use mild soaps. Hot water and harsh soaps can remove natural oils from your skin.
  • Sprinkle colloidal oatmeal in your bath water. Oatmeal soothes dry skin and helps retain moisture.
    After washing, gently pat your skin (don’t rub dry). Moisturize while your skin is still slightly damp to seal moisture in.
  • Use moisturizers high in natural emollients specifically formulated for dry skin.
  • After washing your hands, apply a deep penetrating balm to help prevent dry, cracked skin.
  • Protect your skin from cold windy conditions. Apply a rich face cream and a long-lasting natural lip balm before going outside. Don’t forget your hat, scarf and gloves!
  • Exfoliating dead skin will allow a moisturizer to sink in deeper.
  • Maintain a comfortable level of humidity in your home. Indoor heating dries out the air – and your skin.
  • Drink plenty of water. The body needs water to keep going, and if it doesn’t have enough it will draw from your skin’s water reservoir.
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