Dry skin occurs when the skin is unable to retain enough moisture to keep itself hydrated. Practices and conditions like bathing or showering too frequently, using harsh chemical-laden soaps, aging, certain medical conditions, and low humidity are all potential factors leading to dry skin.
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The water content of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) tends to reflect the level of humidity around it. Especially in late Fall and all during Winter, climatic conditions will negatively affect skin that isn’t well protected, hydrated, and nourished.
Low humidity, low temperatures, and wind create negative effects on the skin barrier and make skin less able to function optimally.
“Think of the epidermal skin cells as an arrangement of roof shingles held together by a lipid-rich ‘glue’ that keeps the skin cells flat, smooth, and in place… Water loss accelerates when the glue is loosened by sun damage, over-cleansing, scrubbing, or underlying medical conditions—or by winter's low humidity and the drying effects of indoor heat. The result is roughness, flaking, itching, cracking, and sometimes a burning sensation.” — Harvard Women’s Health Watch
You don’t have to have mature skin to experience dry skin in Winter, especially if you already have some sort of dermatosis or skin condition. These can be exacerbated and combined with dry skin when exposed to wintry conditions or low humidity environments even in younger people. No matter their age, people with atopic dermatitis (also known as eczema), for example, can really suffer in the colder months with very dry, rough, peeling, and cracking skin.
In more mature skin, however, we see changes in skin structure begin to accelerate with age and which contribute to the drying of the skin. The skin starts to lose its ability to regenerate and along with the cumulative effects of environmental insults, skin barrier function and hydration of the skin decline. Over time, skin becomes more susceptible to irritants and allergens that enter through the skin and this can lead to inflammation and itching.
A proactive measure to take right now before Winter and cold weather arrives is to make sure your skin is well mineralized. Without adequate mineralization that prepares skin to receive hydration and retain it, moisturizers will be much less effective.
Finally, here are a number of additional tips that will help you have an easier time keeping your skin hydrated this Winter:
Replenish the top layer of the epidermis by running a humidifier in your home.
Keep your bath or shower time down to no more than one five- to ten-minute session with warm rather than very warm or hot water. Bathe too frequently and you could strip away the skin’s oils and cause it to lose moisture.
Use a light touch with facial scrubs, bath sponges, scrubbers and washcloths. Then pat or blot the skin rather than vigorously rubbing to dry the skin after washing or bathing.
Be careful of the soaps you use. Find the most gentle and natural and that don’t contain fragrance or alcohol. If possible, look for soaps formulated with high integrity essential oils which will improve and protect your skin as you wash.
The same goes for your laundry soaps and softeners. Rubbing chemically treated fabrics against your skin can exacerbate dry skin. Use only fragrance-free detergents and avoid fabric softeners. A good dash of white vinegar in the rinse cycle is an effective natural fabric softener.
Stay away from wearing fabrics that irritate the skin like wool.
Always apply a good moisturizer right after bathing or even every time after you wash your hands. This helps seal in moisture in the spaces between your skin cells and is most effective to do while your skin is still moist.
If you’re itchy, don’t scratch. Very often, a moisturizer can help control the itch. Try applying a cold pack or compress on the itchy spots.
Even in Winter, use sunscreen to prevent sun-damaged skin that causes aging and dryness.
When you shave, leave your shaving cream on the skin for several minutes before actually using the razor. This can help by providing a moisture barrier to counteract the negative effects of epilation.
Make sure you’re getting the proper nutrients that keep skin healthy and resilient: vitamin D, vitamin A, niacin, iodine, iron, silica, chromium, selenium, zinc, sulfur, manganese, magnesium, cobalt, and copper. Without an adequate intake of these, you can develop excessively dry skin. You may want to investigate foods that will ensure you get these nutrients naturally and without supplementation.
Apply most or all of these tips and your skin should get through the cold dry months resiliently. A well-rounded holistic approach like this to retaining skin moisturization is your best strategy for supple hydrated skin this Winter.
Engebretsen KA, Johansen JD, Kezic S, Linneberg A, Thyssen JP. The effect of environmental humidity and temperature on skin barrier function and dermatitis. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016 Feb;30(2):223-49. doi: 10.1111/jdv.13301. Epub 2015 Oct 8. PMID: 26449379.doi:10.1111/dth.12029
Garibyan, Lilit et al. “Advanced aging skin and itch: addressing an unmet need.” Dermatologic therapy vol. 26,2 (2013): 92-103. doi:10.1111/dth.1202
“What to Do about Dry Skin in Winter.” Harvard Health, 1 Feb. 2011, https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/what-to-do-about-dry-skin-in-winter.