If you're making the most of the winter season, chances are you'll spend some time this year trudging through the woods or hitting the slopes, maybe throwing snowballs around with the kids or just snuggling by the fire at the end of the day. But the combo of cold outside air, dry indoor air, and layers of warm clothes and accessories can zap your skin of much-needed moisture. The result: Flaky, dull skin that can itch or even sting.
You might be tempted to slather on baby oil or petroleum jelly and hope that your dry elbows will return to their former silky smoothness, but dermatologist David E. Bank, co-author of Beautiful Skin: Every Woman's Guide to Looking Her Best at Any Age, explains why that won’t do much good. “Dry skin is lacking water—not oil,” he says. “The function of oil in our skin is to help seal moisture in. That’s why when you put something like petroleum jelly on dry skin without water, you won’t get hydrated skin.”
The outermost layer of your skin not only serves as a barrier to block outside elements from getting in, says Bank, but also to trap and hold water. When winter’s damaging elements start attacking skin, it stops functioning as a brick wall, and starts to develop cracks. (But you knew that already, right?)
Here are Bank’s best tips for strengthening your foundation for hydrated, healthy skin.
The winter woe: Dry, peeling lips
The cause: Because lips lack oil glands and have a mucosal surface, they tend to dry out and chap more easily than other areas. When it's cold outside, the dry air pulls moisture from the area around your mouth. Like Mom always said, licking your lips just makes the problem worse.
How to heal: Don’t believe the urban legends about getting addicted to lip balm! Apply often, and correctly: Take a sip of water and leave lips slightly damp before applying lip balm or an emollient lipstick. And always use one with SPF; the sun’s damaging rays don’t take a vacation during winter.
The winter woe: Chapped, cracked hands
The cause: The cold saps moisture from your hands, and extremes in temperature also chap and dehydrate them. Plus, if you’re at all concerned about catching a cold or worse, you’re probably washing hands more often this time of year. “In this day and age with all of the concerns about MRSA and other staph infections, people are also using more hand sanitizers, which can be drying and irritating,” Bank says.
How to heal: Wear gloves as often as possible when outdoors. Get a good hand moisturizer and use it regularly – preferably after every hand-washing, and also before bed. And buy alcohol-free hand sanitizers, which will cut down on evaporation and dryness.
The winter woe: Grey, scaly elbows
The cause: Pushing or friction on the skin – say, from adding and removing sweaters and other long-sleeve layers – causes it to get thickened, scaly and rough.
How to heal: Try not to rest your elbows on tables or counters. Moisturize more regularly—and check the label. The first ingredient listed should be water; those that follow are the elements that will help trap and hold the water in your skin. Finally, layer soft fabrics underneath scratchy wools and knits.
Winter skin savers
Come winter, your regular cleansing and moisturizing routine needs a boost. For the most protected skin, check your regular routine at the door and do the following:
Seal in moisture. Apply moisturizer right after a shower or bath, when your skin is still slightly damp, suggests Elaine Brumberg, author of Ageless: What Every Woman Needs to Know to Look and Feel Great. This way the water will be sealed onto the skin.
Lay it on thick. If breakouts aren't a problem, use a cream moisturizer for your body that contains lanolin or petrolatum to help prevent evaporation, says Brumberg. You can also go for the creamier brand of your regular face moisturizer.
Be gentle. Exfoliating flaky skin can seem like a no-brainer, but make sure you use a mild exfoliant, so as to not further damage your dermis, advises Bank. Depending on your skin type, you shouldn’t be exfoliating more than once a week to once a month.
Hydrate from within. Drink lots of water during the day (about eight-8 oz. glasses), to keep your skin moisturized, says Brumberg.
Cool it down. Hot water can strip the oil from your skin, drying it out. Taking warm or tepid showers instead of hot ones is one of the best ways to keep from dehydrating your skin, says Brumberg.
Make it a habit. Just as you can’t lose weight by dieting for one day, getting and maintaining hydrated skin takes time, says Bank. Make these tips part of your daily routine.