Winter skin care essentials

During the winter, most people find that their skin gets drier. This is partly due to the winter weather - cold air and winds dry out the skin. It is also partly due to the things people do to cope with winter, such as turning up the heat and taking hot baths or showers.

As soon as the temperature starts to drop in the fall, it's time to switch to a winter skin care routine. Good winter skin care means changes to the way you clean, moisturize and protect your skin, as well as to your diet, lifestyle and environment.

Bathing: It might seem that a nice hot bath would help keep your skin moist. But hot water actually dries out the skin. Use lukewarm water instead. Spending a long time in the bath or shower can also make your skin drier. Try to limit yourself to about 10 minutes. And use a cleanser that is free of soap and alcohol - soap, alcohol-based cleansers and bubble bath can make your skin drier by removing the protective lipids or oils that help your skin hold onto moisture. You may want to try using a bath or shower gel to help with dry skin.

Moisturizing: Moisturizing is a critical step in winter skin care. After your bath or shower, pat your skin dry with a towel and apply moisturizer immediately. This way, the moisturizer helps hold moisture in the skin. Moisturizer will also help protect your skin from moisture loss during the day. The choice of moisturizer will depend on your skin type. For more oily skin, an oil-free, non-comedogenic (not causing blemishes) lotion can be used. For drier skin, a cream, which contains more lipids or oils and moisturizing agents, is a good choice. Some areas of the skin, such as hands, feet, elbows, nose and lips, are more prone to dryness and may need extra attention. Carry around a small tube of moisturizer and lip balm to give a quick moisture boost throughout the day.

At home: Although cold air dries the skin, the hot dry air that comes from indoor heating can also be a culprit. If you don't have a climate meter (a device that tells you what the temperature and humidity is in your home), consider getting one. If your home is dry, you may want to invest in a humidifier. If this is not an option, you can also try boiling some water or putting a pot of water on the radiator to increase the moisture in the air.

Lifestyle: The healthier you are, the healthier your skin will be. In the winter, you may not feel as thirsty, but you still need plenty of water each day to stay hydrated. Keep a "drinking water cup" nearby at home and work to help you get enough fluid. You will need to drink water throughout the day, not just at meals. Eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables as well as non-saturated fats (such as fish oils). Other lifestyle changes that will help your skin include quitting smoking, limiting your use of alcohol, and getting aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes per day most days of the week.

Sunscreen is for winter too!

You can still get a sunburn in the winter, even though it's not hot outside. It is important to protect your skin from the sun all year round to reduce your risk of skin cancer and premature aging. This is especially true if you are spending time outdoors, since sunlight and 80% of UV rays can be reflected off of snow and ice. The sunlight will also be more intense at higher altitudes.

Here are some tips on winter sun protection:

  • Use sunscreen. Sunscreens are not just for summer. Apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin 20 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours and after sweating or getting the skin wet. Choose a sunscreen that has an SPF of 15-30 and protects against both UVA and UVB light. Many moisturizers also contain sunscreens. Try to find a product that is recognized by the Canadian Dermatology Association (look for their logo on the package). If sunscreen gets in your eye, flush it with plenty of water for 10-15 minutes. Your lips can get sunburned too, so be sure to use a lip balm with an SPF of at least 15.
  • Cover up. Protect your eyes from sun damage with a pair of close-fitting sunglasses that provide UVA and UVB protection.
  • Reduce your risk. If you are using a medication that contains a retinoid (such as acitretin, isotretinoin or tretinoin), or other medications that make the skin more sensitive to the sun (such as tetracycline, ibuprofen or hydrochlorothiazide), use extra caution when going out in the sun.
  • Watch out for windows. UVA rays can pass through glass all year long. These are the rays that cause skin aging, skin cancer and most drug-related reactions to the sun. UVB rays cannot pass through glass. These are the rays that lead to sunburns.

Winter sports: saving your skin

Winter sports are a great way to stay fit and enjoy the outdoors. But cold weather activities can put an extra strain on your skin. Keep your skin safe by avoiding these pitfalls:

Dehydration: Because it's not hot outside, you may not feel as thirsty while exercising. However, if you're active, you can get dehydrated, even in the cold. It's especially important to stay hydrated at high altitudes (for instance, while skiing in the mountains), since dehydration can make altitude sickness worse. Be sure to drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise. Avoid alcohol while exercising outdoors. It can cause dehydration.

Frostbite: Cold weather can cause areas of the skin to freeze, leading to frostbite. This is usually seen on the skin of the face, fingers and toes. Frostbite causes ice crystals to form in the tissues. This leads to tissue damage and reduces the blood supply in the affected area. If not found and treated quickly, it may lead to infection and tissue loss. With frostbite, the affected areas are cold, white, hard to the touch and numb. When warmed, the area becomes swollen, red and painful. Blisters may appear, and areas of the skin may be black or gray. Frostbite is treated by warming the affected area in warm (but not scalding) water. Once thawed, the area should not be refrozen, as this will do more damage. Antibiotics and surgery to remove damaged tissue may be needed in cases of infection.

Tips for preventing frostbite:

  • Dress in layers, with a moisture-wicking inner layer, a warm middle layer and a wind-proof outer layer. Mittens provide more warmth than gloves. If your hands or feet become wet, go inside.
  • For very cold temperatures, try a neoprene facemask or a balaclava to protect the delicate facial skin from frostbite.
  • Blood circulation helps keep the extremities (hands, feet, ears and nose) warm in cold temperatures. If you have conditions that affect your blood circulation (such as diabetes or Raynaud's disease), you may have a higher risk of frostbite.

Sunburn: You can still get a sunburn in the winter, especially on snow or ice, which reflect 80% of the sun's rays. Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin to protect it from sunburn. For more information on sunscreens, see "Sunscreen is for winter too!" in this health feature.

When it's more than dry skin: eczema

For many people, the winter season brings dry skin. But for others, winter weather can cause or worsen other skin problems, such as eczema.

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a skin condition that leads to skin redness, itching, oozing, crusting and scaling. The condition is not contagious. It is caused by a combination of factors, including genes, allergies and "triggers." A trigger is something that brings on an eczema "flare-up." Each person has their own set of triggers. These may include extreme humidity (high or low) or temperatures (hot or cold), harsh soaps and chemicals, stress, plants or pollen, animal dander, harsh chemicals or soaps, and tight or scratchy clothing. Many people find that winter weather triggers their eczema.

Tips for coping with eczema in the winter:

  • Moisturizing is always important for people with eczema, but in the winter, it's critical! If your skin gets dry in the winter, you may need to switch from a moisturizing lotion to a cream. Moisturize immediately after bathing to hold moisture in the skin. Put on moisturizer throughout the day as needed to soothe dry skin, and again before bedtime.
  • If cold weather and dry air trigger your eczema, get a climate meter (which tells you the temperature and humidity) for your home. If your home is dry, consider buying a humidifier. Or you can try boiling some water or placing a bowl of water over the radiator to increase the moisture in the air. Cover up when you go outside to protect yourself from the cold air.
  • Eczema makes the skin very itchy. Scratching can cause an "itch-scratch" cycle - scratching damages the skin, which leads to more itching, which in turn leads to scratching. It can also increase the risk of skin infections. If you can't stop scratching, try medications such as antihistamines or anti-inflammatories to help relieve the itching. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about which medications would be best for you.

If you think you may have eczema, talk to your doctor or dermatologist.