Cold play: A guide to skin care during winters

Chilly winds and low humidity ravage your skin, making it look and feel dull and lifeless; a renowned skin specialist tells you how to protect it from winter’s icy effects

Woman applying cream on her face / skin care concept

Cosy sweaters, warm conversations and snuggling in bed... ah! If only our skin would settle for such simple stuff! The cold, coupled with low humidity and the dry air of heaters, can leave your skin dry, flaky and itchy. While all skin-types need protection in winter, those with certain skin conditions need to take extra care.

Come winter and my skin becomes a problem. From chapped lips to cracked heels to body itches, I get them all. If I forget to moisturise my legs in the morning, I am sure to be embarrassed in the clinic because of the white streaks on my legs. This is excessive dry skin, which I have inherited from my father, and the winters dehydrate it even more. People who suffer from skin allergies, eczemas and certain skin disorders like atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, seborrhoeic dermatitis, should be aware that their skin problems will worsen in  winter. So they need to take a little extra care and follow a stringent and effective skin care regime for their skin to stay moist and healthy.

Knowing your skin

First, let’s understand how your skin reacts to winter. The skin that is visible to your eyes is actually made up of many layers. The upper layers comprises of dead cells, which have lipids, oils, lactic acid, urea and hyaluronic acid in them. These form the skin’s natural moisturisers, giving it a natural ‘skin barrier’ that helps keep our skin hydrated and supple. Due to the low humidity in winter, the lipid structure in the barrier layer of the skin tends to break up. This means water can’t be retained in the skin and this gives you dry, flaky skin.

Your natural superhero: your skin barrier and how to take care of it

All of us have a skin barrier—a protective shield that protects and nourishes the skin. A healthy skin barrier has fat molecules—cholesterol, fatty acids and ceramides—in the right ratio to keep the skin healthy. Our skin barrier also has an ideal acidic level, or what we call pH level, of about 5.4. This ideal pH level kills unwanted bacteria and yeast.

In winter, the cold disrupts the pH level, as does the low humidity. A broken-down skin barrier allows irritants, allergens and bacteria to find their way into your skin, causing allergies and breaking down of the skin. Foaming cleansers, bubble baths and bar soaps are some of the other common culprits that strip the lipids from the skin.

Very alkaline face soaps and ingredients such as AHAs [highly acidic] and retinoids [Vitamin A derivates] if used in the wrong concentrations, can aggravate the damage to the skin barrier. Too much exfoliating and washing is another common cause—even if you have oily skin with pimples, washing your face twice a day is more than enough.

Opt for cleansers [cream cleansers if your skin is extra dry] that have stearic acid [a common fatty acid]—this will improve your skin barrier. Facial cleansing oils, touted as the latest thing in skin care, are actually a centuries-old tradition in Asia. You can also repair your skin barrier from the inside by using supplements such as borage seed or evening primrose oil. You must consult your dermatologist to know the adequate dosage.

How do you make out if your skin barrier is damaged?

Your skin will feel tight and drier than normal to begin with. At night use a heavier moisturiser for your face, and a rich ointment for your hands, feet, legs, and elbows. Warm the moisturiser or ointment by rubbing it between your fingertips, before applying. If the irritation persists, you could try investing in an air humidifier or consult a dermatologist.

Moisturising is the key to rebalancing the skin barrier and replenishing your skin’s beneficial fats. Opt for skin care products that have fatty acids, cholesterol, and ceramides. A damaged skin barrier can take weeks or even months to repair.

Get a supple winter glow!

Winter’s magic mantra is: moisturise, moisturise and moisturise! Moisturising in winters is a must to replenish the moisture your skin loses to the harsh weather. Body oils work wonders for the skin as they protect the skin’s barriers and lock in moisture preventing it from escaping the skin’s surface.

Add a few drops of coconut or almond oil to your bath. This is an excellent moisturiser and works on your skin by keeping it moist and soft throughout the day. Natural oils are a necessary ingredient for the skin in winter and they help keep your skin supple.

Winter Dos

  • While the thought of a long, hot bath on a cold winter day is very appealing, over-exposure to hot water can dry your skin out even more. So you’re better off having a bath with lukewarm water.
  • Avoid having a shower for more than 10 minutes.
  • Be careful about the soap you bathe with, as soaps can alter the pH of the skin and make it alkaline. This will cause dryness and flaking of the skin. Deodorant bars as well as antibacterial soaps make the skin drier. If your skin is sensitive, avoid soaps with fragrances. I would opt for clear shower gels as they maintain the pH balance of the skin as well as cleanse the skin well. If your skin is dry, opt for a non-foaming, gentle moisturising shower gel.
  • After a bath, apply a moisturising lotion on your entire body, while the skin is slightly moist. Use a heavy moisturising cream for your hands, elbows, knees and feet. It wouldn’t be wrong to quote that “Your moisturiser should be your daily companion.”
  • Sunscreen isn’t just for summer time. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to your face, neck and your hands [if they’re exposed].
  • Moisturise your lips in order to form a protective barrier between the cold air and your lips. Use a lip balm for your lips. Ghee or clarified butter works beautifully too. Do not lick your lips as this dries them further. Avoid matte lipsticks and opt for a lip gloss instead.
  • Avoid toners and astringents in winter, especially if they are alcohol-based. They will further dry your skin.
  • Avoid having room heaters on for long hours. These will make the skin drier by ripping moisture away.
  • If you are developing cracks on your heels, you need to take care of your feet on a daily basis, instead of depending on once-in-a-while pedicures.
  • Drink up to eight glasses of water daily to keep hydrated. You can also make use of natural fluids from juicy fruits for delicious drinks.
  • Include flax seeds, almonds, walnuts, salmon and mackerel in your diet. These are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and will help to keep the skin hydrated.

Skin care remedies from your kitchen

Here are some delicious remedies to soothe and nourish your skin. Home-made masks are a simple way to nourish your skin.

  • Make a paste with yoghurt, ground almonds and coconut milk. Apply the mixture on your face and keep it on for 20 minutes. Wash it off with lukewarm water.
  • You can also blend an avocado with a few drops of coconut oil and apply the mixture all over your body before a bath. Leave it on for 10 minutes and then wash it off. Your skin will feel fresh and good as new!
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Your skin is a living, breathing thing and like you, it also has many moods. Knowing your skin is important and so is observing and understanding how your skin behaves with the changing seasons. I hope you’re now better prepared to take care of your skin the right way this winter!

Excerpted with permission from the book Skin Talks by Dr Jaishree Sharad; published by Random House India.

A version of this excerpt also appeared in the December 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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