Winter can be hard on skin, with lower humidity in the air combined with the… (Dougal Waters / Getty Images )
Winter does a number on skin, from head to toe. But it's possible to resist letting the dry winter air wring every drop of moisture from your skin.
"It's an environmental problem," says Dr. Nicholas Perricone, dermatologist and author of "Forever Young: The Science of Nutrigenomics for Glowing, Wrinkle-Free Skin and Radiant Health at Every Age."
Much attention has been given to the summer skin problems that come from the sun's damaging rays. Winter brings other issues.
As the temperature drops in the winter, fewer water vapors circulate in the air. Then we crank up the furnace to warm our homes, further depleting available moisture. And our skin takes a beating, Perricone says.
Increase the moisture and opt for humidity levels of 50% to 60%, says Perricone. Drippy windows from condensation buildup indicate too much humidity. Sometimes you have to fiddle with the humidifier to get the levels right.
Humidifier not working? "Take a bath towel, soak it with water except the last 3 inches on both ends [so it won't drip]. Then drape it over something near your bed [at night]," says Perricone.
Mind your lathers
Regular hand-washing may leave your hands feeling like Brillo. Use mild soaps and avoid antibacterial varieties because they contain fewer moisturizers, says Dr. Lorraine Young, a dermatology professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Look for products with emollients like lanolin or sunflower oil if you are looking for mild ingredients.
While you're at it, resist long, hot showers, and opt for shorter lukewarm ones, Young says. Hot water "breaks down lipid barriers" and strips away the body's natural moisture. "The more you're in water and the hotter it is, the drier your skin," Young says.
Because of her job and location in the desert, lead aesthetician Erin Guglielmino at Aji Spa & Salon in Chandler, Ariz., treats her share of clients with dry skin. Unlike hard-working hands protected by thick skin, delicate facial skin requires more TLC, says Guglielmino, who adds, "Use a creamy cleanser if you've got dry skin."
One possibility is the Lemon Cream Cleanser by Sanitas, which works with most skin types. (200 milliliters, $32).
And because lips contain no oil glands, they need added moisture protection, whether it's low-cost Vaseline or more expensive lip balms.
After a shower is a perfect opportunity to stockpile the skin's water reserves. "Pat your skin dry, and don't take all the moisture off," says Young. Applying moisturizer to damp skin seals in more moisture.
The key is to moisturize regularly. "It doesn't matter if it's lard or the fanciest moisturizer from Paris," Young says. She recommends gentle moisturizers like the drugstore brand Aquaphor, which contains camomile essence, vitamin B-5 and humectants like glycerin.
While there are many exfoliation products available, Perricone says it's not necessary. "In normal skin, the skin exfoliates itself," he says. "I'm not a big fan of exfoliation, mechanically or any other way. And if your skin is healthy and you're moisturizing regularly, then I don't see any reason to exfoliate."
But if you must exfoliate, Perricone suggests keeping it to a minimum, say, once a week with a gentle loofah. "If you over-exfoliate, you'll decrease the [skin] barrier and lose water through the transepidermal barrier," he says.
While the winter sun may not have the power of the summer sun, sunscreens are still important, experts say. A big mistake is "not wearing sunscreen or thinking the SPF in your makeup contains enough sunscreen," says Allison Marks, a spokeswoman for the L.A.-based skin care product company Arcona. "If you're using tinted moisturizer, you're not going to put on that full teaspoon that's recommended; you're going to put on the size of a nickel."
Hidden by a summer sun-kissed glow, small brown spots seem to make their debut come winter. The melanin in our skin reacts to the sun by producing a tan. But too much exposure can result in uneven skin tone, or "irregular pigmentation," that appears blotchy or spotty. Some doctors diagnose the spots as lentigines, commonly called sunspots, age spots or liver spots, from a combination of aging skin and excess sun.
Topical treatments with antioxidants, such as alpha lipoic acid and pycnogenol, can help minimize the spotty look, says Perricone, who has his own line of skin care products and supplements. Another antioxidant to consider, DMAE, has previously been studied for its potential brain-boosting benefits.
"DMAE also has efficacy in normalizing the pigment in the skin," he says. If you try oral pycnogenol, Perricone suggests 50 milligrams daily.
When to call the doctor
Many people can successfully treat dry their skin at home. But when there's no relief in sight for itchy, irritated skin, consider visiting your doctor. Young says to watch for symptoms like extremely red, scaly, itchy skin or a painful, burning sensation.