There are easy ways to avoid dryness and irritation when colder weather arrives.
As the outside air cools and the heat starts to crank on indoors, you may notice your skin becoming flaky, maybe even a bit itchy. Welcome to fall and winter.
Your skin’s main job is to “keep the inside world in and the outside world out,” said Dr. Brittany Craiglow, an associate adjunct professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a dermatologist in Fairfield, Conn. The outermost layer, the lipid barrier, which is composed of fatty compounds, helps to prevent germs and toxins from entering your body and hydration from leaving it.
When temperatures drop, the air gets drier — both indoors and outdoors — and moisture gets pulled from the lipid barrier. With less hydration, the turnover of skin cells is impaired and they start to clump together, which people can experience as dry, flaky or even scaly skin, Dr. Craiglow said.
Some are more susceptible to developing dry skin in cooler weather, particularly older adults and those with eczema, said Dr. Jeffrey Weinberg, a clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But it can happen to anyone.
And even if dry skin doesn’t really bother you, treating it “prevents itch, eczema and psoriasis flares, and potentially skin infections,” said Dr. Dina Strachan, a clinical assistant professor at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine and a dermatologist in New York City. “Anyone can get eczema if your skin gets dry enough.”
In addition to being uncomfortable, eczema can negatively affect your overall health. A growing body of evidence suggests that moderate to severe eczema (defined as covering 10 percent or more of the skin’s surface) may be associated with increased levels of inflammation in the blood and might put you at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and dementia. Treating more serious cases of eczema seems to reduce inflammation, said Dr. Emma Guttman-Yassky, a professor of dermatology and immunology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who has conducted research on the subject. “If you have just a little eczema here and there, you shouldn’t be alarmed,” she added.
To keep your skin healthy and comfortable throughout the fall and winter, Dr. Craiglow said, it makes sense to change your skin care regimen now: “Starting a routine early in anticipation of the colder months may help prevent some of the changes from occurring, or at least lessen them,” she said.
How to adjust your skin care
Several experts said that long, hot showers can strip oil from your skin, and recommended switching to shorter, cooler ones instead, as well as using a fragrance-free soap or cleanser. A tepid shower on a 20-degree day may sound unappealing, Dr. Craiglow said, “but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re having an eczema flare or your skin is super dry.” After you’re finished, moisturize your face and body while your skin is still damp to help seal in the moisture from the shower, she added.
When choosing face and body moisturizers, “Boring is best; the more bland, the better,” Dr. Craiglow said. She recommended avoiding fragrance and preservatives like parabens or methylisothiazolinone, which can further irritate dry skin. Brands such as Aquaphor, Cetaphil, CeraVe and Vanicream are good options.
The gold standard for moisturizing is a thick, occlusive product like petroleum jelly, which creates a physical barrier to lock in hydration. But it’s OK to use a cream or lotion if you don’t love heavier, greasier formulas, Dr. Weinberg said, adding, “A cream you use is better than an ointment you don’t use.”
Whatever you choose, use it regularly — after you bathe and anytime you feel dry.
And don’t forget your hands: Wear gloves when you’re outside and be sure to moisturize after you wash. “If you’re washing your hands many times a day and using hand sanitizer, you’re going to irritate your hands and they’ll get red, dry, flaky,” Dr. Weinberg said. Ironically, frequent hand washing can damage the lipid barrier and make it easier for pathogens to enter the body.
Other factors to consider
A humidifier can help reduce the moisture loss that skin experiences in indoor environments, especially for people who live in apartment buildings with very dry heat, Dr. Weinberg said. “Just make sure you clean it out and change the water every day — humidifiers can be a great place for bacteria to grow,” he said.
While there’s no strong evidence that supplements or specific eating plans measurably hydrate your skin, “making sure you’re drinking adequate water and getting good fats in your diet, like avocado, walnuts and olive oil, can support a healthy lipid barrier,” Dr. Strachan said.
Finally, if your skin is “keeping you up at night, if you’re constantly scratching, if it’s not going away with a week of moisturizing really well,” you should see a dermatologist because you may need a prescription to address it, Dr. Strachan said.
Luckily, it’s a “revolutionary time of therapies” for eczema, Dr. Weinberg said. Often, a combination of smart skin hygiene and a topical steroid cream can make a big difference.
Anna Maltby is a freelance writer covering health and fitness.