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I don’t know about you, but one reason I dread winter here in Maine is what it does to my skin. Once you hear my story, which I’m sure is not unique, you’ll understand why I had to share what I’ve learned about the three main types of skin moisturizers, how they work (differently!), and the bonus ingredient with extra benefits.
My dry skin concerns go far beyond beauty products. For years, I’ve had cracked and bleeding thumbs and heels.
I’ve also been subject to cracked and chapped lips, flaking skin on my nose and forearms… and oh, did I mention the ITCH! It’s almost non-stop, from November to May.
I decided to get serious about my skin this year because once the weather heats up, I’ll be showing just a little more of it when I break out the sandals and sleeveless shirts.
Thanks to some research into moisturizers and other things that are now part of my skincare regimen, I’m impressed with how much better my skin is looking and feeling.
If you’re in the same boat when it comes to dry, itchy winter skin, you’ll want to read on to hear about what I’ve learned…
All moisturizers are NOT created equal
In my drugstore, the choices of lotion and moisturizer take up four shelves and stretch for half an aisle… it’s overwhelming! It makes you want to just grab one that looks good, or smells good, and be done with it.
But that would be a mistake.
Not all dry skin is the same, and moisturizers have different functions.
In fact, there are actually three different types of moisturizers:
Humectants. Humectants are ingredients that attract water and keep it in your skin. When the weather is humid, humectants draw moisture from the air.
But in dry winter weather, a humectant moisturizes the outer layer of skin by pulling moisture from deeper skin layers. That’s why, at this time of year, you shouldn’t be using a humectant alone.
Emollients. Emollient ingredients such as lanolin or mineral oil are lipids that smooth and soften by filling in tiny cracks in your skin. An emollient, when used along with a humectant, is the perfect treatment for extremely dry skin.
Occlusives. Petroleum jelly falls into the final category of skin treatments for winter, known as occlusive. These are thick, greasy treatments whose job it is to seal in water and not let it out.
Bonus: The importance of ceramides
Ceramides are a type of lipid, or fat, that your body produces naturally. Ceramides are like the ‘mortar’ that holds skin cells together in the epidermis (the outermost layers of skin).
Ceramides do more than keep the skin smooth and supple. They are part of the skin’s barrier and help protect it from dry air and environmental pollution.
“If you have diminished ceramides in the skin, the barrier won’t be able to work properly,” says chemist Danusia Wnek. “You will have an increase in transepidermal water loss and the potential for irritants and allergens to enter the skin increases.”
And, believe it or not, after age 20, the body produces fewer ceramides at a loss of one percent per year.
But there’s good news, too. You can slow the loss of ceramides from your skin by avoiding the overuse of exfoliants (those grainy products that remove dead skin cells), and by protecting your skin as much as possible from direct contact with cold, dry, winter air.
Also, many moisturizers are formulated with ceramides that can replace some of what’s lost due to age.
Help your skin from the inside out
Supplements are part of a healthy lifestyle. One I have started taking regularly is an omega-3 supplement. Besides promoting good heart health, a 2018 review of scientific literature found that omega-3s have benefits for the skin, including:
- maintaining homeostasis
- improving barrier function
- inhibiting inflammation, particularly from UV light
- promoting skin healing
The benefits are attributed to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Omega-3s also support the formation and maintenance of collagen, which is the connective tissue under your skin that creates structure, maintains the skin’s elasticity, and can help keep the skin looking smoother. Truth be told, I’ve even split open a capsule to apply the fatty oil directly to especially dry areas.
Is it dry skin or is it eczema?
According to Dr. Rajani Katta, professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine, “Very dry skin, if not reversed, can progress to skin inflammation and eczema, which calls for a different course of treatment.”
Redness, itching, scaling and cracking are all signs of inflammation and/or eczema. Inflammation can also show up on the lips, so avoid licking dry lips. Instead, apply petroleum jelly or a protective lip balm whenever you think of it, and always before going out into winter weather.
My personal choice? Well, it was good old petroleum jelly — an occlusive moisturizer — that finally worked for my severely cracked heels. I applied a thick layer of petroleum jelly at bedtime, after washing my feet first (so I wasn’t trapping any dirt along with that moisture). Then, I wrapped my feet in plastic wrap and put on a thick pair of socks. After about a week, those painful cracks began to heal.
I hope you can help your skin feel better soon. Depending on what part of the country you live in, you could be facing several more dry and itchy weeks of winter — unless you find what moisturizer works best for you.
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Winter Skin Hazards — Web MD
Dermatologists Explain Why Ceramides Are So Important for Your Skin’s Health —goodhousekeeping.com
Hot showers harmful to skin during winter — Baylor College of Medicine