There are plenty of things to love about winter, but the way it ravages our skin and locks isn’t one of them. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a perennially warm climate, you know exactly what we’re talking about.
We all know that feeling of winter dryness: rough, tight skin, chapped lips, brittle nails, and hair that feels like it desperately needs a vacation to some tropical paradise. These are common experiences this time of year, and they’re not flattering! The cause? For starters, the lack of humidity in the air dries out our skin. But because of this cold weather, we may also fall into habits that aren’t helping our already withered-by-winter bod.
Good thing dermatologist Dr. Nada Elbuluk, assistant professor at the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine, has some genius tips to lock in moisture and undo winter damage — even when Mother Nature delivers her icy kiss.
Keep showers short
Yes, the hot water feels good and who doesn’t love a steamy 20-minute shower? Well, your skin may not. Dr. Elbuluk says long showers dry out the skin and suggests showering for five to 10 minutes only in warm, not hot, water. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that if you shower for longer, your skin can end up more dehydrated than before you showered. Hot water strips your skin of its oils faster than warm water.
Moisturize like mad
The job of moisturizer is to create a seal on your skin to prevent water from escaping. In a drier environment (like winter), your skin loses moisture faster, so it’s crucial that you moisturize correctly and consistently. Dr. Elbuluk’s take: “You want to make sure you are using a really good barrier cream. I prefer creams over lotions in the winter. Lotions are usually lighter. Creams are a little bit thicker, so they’re going to moisturize more.”
Timing is also important. “People should really be moisturizing right after they get out of the shower, when their skin is damp,” Dr. Elbuluk recommends. “That’s when you want to lock that moisture into your skin.”
Skip the harsh soaps
Using harsh soaps or detergents can strip oil from your skin and cause it to become dry, says the AAD. Be wary of products that may contain alcohol or fragrances, such as deodorant bars or antibacterial soaps. Instead, look for skin care products that contain moisturizers or added oils and fats. Also look for mild or fragrance-free products. The gentle and more moisturizing the product, the better it is for your skin.
Put on petroleum jelly
An all-too-common winter complaint is brittle or chipping nails. While overall body moisturizing can help maintain healthy nails, Dr. Elbuluk adds: “An easy thing to do is just using a thicker emollient like a petroleum jelly and putting it on your hands, particularly around the fingernails where your cuticles are, to just help moisturize the area the same way you’re moisturizing your skin.” Petroleum jelly is also effective at healing chapped lips. The AAD suggests applying it as a balm before bedtime (since the thick, greasy consistency is a bit heavy to wear during the day).
Hone your hand-washing
While this is not a seasonal phenomenon, Dr. Elbuluk adds that repeated hand-washing may lead to excess dryness in the nails. So next time you wash your hands, be conscious about applying a hand moisturizer afterward.
A lot of the same culprits that dry out your skin can also affect your hair, namely hot water and overwashing. And while the above tips can help tame your tresses in the winter, Dr. Elbuluk finds patients asking her more about dry scalps, which typically manifest through flaking or itching. To help, she says: “Spacing out the frequency of the washes can help because the more hot water you have touching your scalp, the more you’re going to dry it out. If you space out your washes to every other day or every couple of days (depending on your hair type), that’s going to help decrease some of the dryness you’re experiencing.” If you have dandruff, try an over-the-counter antidandruff shampoo and if it doesn’t help, see a dermatologist for a prescription-strength shampoo.
The AAD also suggests using conditioner after every shampoo. Conditioner helps improve the look of damaged or weathered hair and increases hair strength. And in case you don’t enjoy being a human radio antenna, conditioner also helps decrease your hair’s static electricity.
When shampooing, focus on your scalp; with conditioner, focus on your hair tips.
As much as we love ombre highlights and perfectly coiffed layers, overprocessing your hair causes damage. Excessive hair treatments, everyday blow-drying, or multiprocess hair coloring, combined with wintery weather, is a double disaster for your hair.
Dr. Elbuluk says, “Try to decrease the frequency of heat exposure, dye exposure, all of those things, to help with the hair not feeling as dry, or brittle, or breaking.”
If, despite your efforts, you find that your dry skin, hair, or nails aren’t improving, see your dermatologist.
Visit your dermatologist if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- persistent itching
- a rash
- red, scaling cracked skin
- open sores or infections from scratching
- small red bumps that may leak fluid when scratched
- red to brownish gray patches
- raw, sensitive, or swollen skin from scratching
These could be signs of a winter eczema (seasonal excessive dryness during winter). The dermatologist will check your skin to make sure nothing more is going on, and may prescribe a treatment.
When buying a moisturizer, what ingredients should I look for?
Barrier creams often have ingredients that help repair your top layer of skin — ceramides, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid are good things to look for in a cream.
For those who get flaking and scaling in certain areas like hands or feet, look for ingredients like lactic acid to help exfoliate and get rid of that dead skin layer while also moisturizing.Nada Elbuluk, MD, assistant professor, Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology, NYU School of MedicineAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.