For many of us, the advent of winter is heralded not by a specific date or temperature but by the desiccation of our skins. For some of us, dryness can get so bad that our skins shrivel, flake, and crack; we feel “pulled”, like we’re too tight in our own skins (and we’re not talking about bulging bellies from festive gobbling). What can we do to prevent this “raisin”d’être? We asked a leading skin expert — Dr. Vermén Verallo-Rowell, a widely published dermatologist and dermatopathologist (specialists at diagnosing skin at the cellular level) — to break down the dry skin dilemma for us:
Dry skin is primarily due to the loss of two very important things: lipids (oils) and water. The outermost layer of skin is also called its barrier layer. This barrier layer is largely made up of oil (lipids: free fatty acids, ceramides) and water. In this oil and water mixture, the lipids regulate the water content — so that when, for example, the skin loses lipids, transepidermal water loss (the loss of water through the skin) increases to many times more than normal.
Why is this important? Because it begins a “snowballing” effect that eventually not only causes dry skin but maintains the dry state.
The outer keratin layers need a concentration of water of 10-20% in order for them to maintain their integrity (healthy structure and function). When water loss occurs, skin cells curl upwards, shrink, scales develop, and cell volume decreases (imagine a grape shrinking and shrivel- ling into a raisin from water loss).
The decrease in cell volume leads to cells becoming inelastic. And when this happens fissures or cracks in the skin can occur, leading to inflammation and the inflow of cellular factors that disrupt skin integrity further.
When your skin is in this compromised condition, it allows the easier entry of ingredients that can produce an allergic or irritant reaction, and microorganisms that can cause infection. And the state of dry skin is maintained.
When skin is compromised, be extra careful about what you apply. A product you think will give you relief could instead, if it contains irritants, cause further damage and lead to increased dryness.
To counteract the conditions during winter time that predispose people to dry skin, remember: it is crucial to maintain adequate oil and water in the barrier layer of your skin.
OVERCOME YOUR “TEPIDATION”:
The cold makes you want to use hot water more. But this encourages the evaporation of water from the skin barrier. Try bathing with tepid water and take shorter showers (which has the added benefit of saving water).
Cold air outside and warm air inside produces low humidity. This is made worse by central and forced-air heating. Some things you can do to help counteract this environment:
- Use a humidifier in your home. In your bedroom, try to position it as near you as possible without compromising safety.
- If you live in warmer climates, lower the setting of your air-conditioners.
- In offices that need air conditioners year round for the maintenance of expensive equipment, be extra conscientious about your skin care regimen. This also applies to those working outdoors who have to deal with the additional drying factor of wind on skin.
A high pH level (8-9) denatures (destroys the characteristic or natural properties of) the skin’s proteins. A pH less than 4 can irritate the skin. Due to the way they’re made, most solid soap bars inherently have a high pH. So especially in the winter, use creamier cleansers instead of soaps. Also, use oils, moisturizers, and other skin products with a pH level adjusted to the skin’s normal pH of 5 to 6 (you can go lower, but no lower than 4, if you’re using an active treatment).
Avoid the many products made for bathing, facial cleansing, hand washing, shaving, etc., that use de-greasing agents. They are designed to remove oil. And avoid rough scrubs which further deplete sebum. Instead, use hair care, liquid or cream cleansers for the face and body, and other products made to enhance oil-retention.
After bathing, towel dry lightly or dab gingerly to keep some of the water on your skin. While still damp, immediately apply an oil or moisturizer on your skin to replace the oils lost in bathing. Massage in gently but thoroughly.
Use bland oils or moisturizers with- out additives or preservatives, such as virgin coconut oil. Virgin coconut oil has the added benefit of its fatty acids being native to skin — so instead of merely preventing water loss, it helps replace lipids.
For very dry areas, you can add petroleum jelly (again, one with no additives). Massage well into the moist skin. For those with exceptionally dry skin apply the petroleum jelly before bathing to protect the problem areas.
Take note that the most commonly affected areas are the lower legs, arms, thighs, sides of the abdomen, hands, and face.
It is important to be consistent with your regimen throughout the winter. Use a hydrating (as opposed to a de-greasing) cream cleanser for the face, a non-drying toner (perhaps one with active anti-aging ingredients), and an intensive moisturizer. Look for products with no allergens (fragrances, preservatives, dyes, etc.) and other irritants).
Certain conditions make some people more prone to having really dry skin year-round.
Medical problems that may affect metabolic states (such as thyroid diseases or diabetes), or medications such as diuretics that dehydrate the skin.
Malnourishment from bad diets, drastic weight loss, or erratic or poor nutrition — this leads to a loss of vitamins, minerals, and sulphur needed for the proper production and regeneration of the skin’s barrier layer.
Elderly people who increasingly have lowered sebaceous gland activity (the skin produces less and less oil).
Beach worshippers or winter sports athletes can get lots of exposure to the sun during winter: it is very important to use a broad spectrum sunscreen (on skin and lips) to prevent burning which further increases water loss.
Those with highly sensitive skin must be very alert as the skin’s increased dryness and compromised state can make it more prone to irritations, inflammations, and infections. Avoid allergens and irritants (remember some “natural” ingredients are irritating) in your hair care, makeup, skin care, and even clothing: dark colors (dyes), formaldehyde resins in the processing of clothing, chemicals used in dry- cleaning, stretch materials, and other materials that are potential irritants or allergens.
If you develop inflammations, infections, or lesions from cracks in the skin, use a gentle broad-spectrum antibiotic (with your doctor’s guidance).
If you think any of these apply to you, in the wintertime, you need to pay greater attention to your skin care, be conscientious about follow- ing these winter guidelines, and consider getting a patch test from your dermatologist.
More questions? We invite you to browse our online skintelligencenter.com and vmvhypoallergenics.com or submit a skinquiry online at AskVMV.