Yes, it’s cold outside. But freezing temperatures aren’t the only cause for the itchy, flaky dry skin you’re experiencing underneath all those layers of clothes. Also responsible is the heated—and dry—air in our homes and offices, says Whitney Bowe, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
While moisturizers promising to eradicate your dry skin problems abound on drugstore shelves, first try these simple moves in your quest to heal and prevent dry skin.
Easy Ways to Prevent Dry Skin
Run a humidifier in your home and office space. Your goal is to keep the indoor air around you at between 30 and 50 percent humidity.
Carolyn Jacob, M.D., a dermatologist with Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology, particularly recommends using humidifiers in the bedroom while you sleep, so that you’re exposed to moist air all night long. (See our humidifier buying guide and ratings.)
Shorten your shower, and use warm—not hot—water. A long, hot shower can dilate your pores, says Jacob, which can allow more water to evaporate from your skin. Once you’re out of the shower, pat (don’t rub!) away excess water, and apply a moisturizer to your skin while it’s still a bit damp. This helps seal moisture in. (See “Moisturizers That Work Hard for You,” below, for tips on picking the best products.)
Protect exposed skin when you’re outside. Cover as much skin as possible: We’re talking gloves, scarf, sunglasses—even a hat to keep your scalp from being exposed to cold, dry air. And although the days are shorter and the earth’s rotation means the sun’s rays are further away, it’s still important to protect your skin from the sun. You can use a moisturizer with a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 30 SPF on exposed skin, or check our sunscreen ratings for the best buys.
Moisturizers That Work Hard for You
Faced with the hundreds of moisturizers lining drugstore aisles, how can you choose what will work best? Making the right choice will require a little label reading, say experts. Here’s what to look for.
Lotion, cream, or ointment? A key difference between moisturizers is the amount of water they contain. According to Tyler Hollmig, M.D., director of laser and aesthetic dermatology at Stanford University, moisturizers labeled as "lotions" may contain a relatively high amount of water, while those labeled as "creams" and "ointments" have a much lower water content.
Those whose skin is just a little dry in winter may find that lotions are sufficient, but creams may be better for people with chronically dry, itchy skin. Ointments—think of a tub of petroleum jelly—usually contain little to no water, and can be a good option for those with severely dry skin.
Look for “humectants.” These are substances that act as moisture magnets. They pull water from the dermis, an inner layer of your skin that contains blood vessels—to the outer layer of skin. Glycerin is one of the most common and effective humectants. Other words signifying a humectant to look for on labels include hyaluronic acid, urea, and propylene glycol.
You also need an “occlusive agent." These ingredients work by creating a water-repellent barrier that seals moisture into your skin. Petrolatum, better known as petroleum jelly, is a common ingredient in many moisturizers. Other occlusives you may see include lanolin, mineral oil, beeswax, paraffin, and silicone.
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