My skin is dry. I know, I know, I’m a dermatologist, but it’s not my fault — I went home for the holidays.
Last week when I deplaned after a cross-country flight, I put on a blazer while pulling my roll-away suitcase, (struggling unsuccessfully to maintain a Cloony-like grace). I noticed snow on the jetway — it was clearly winter in New England. By the time I found the car in the parking lot, icy air was stinging my face, making my nose run, and numbing my gloveless hands. Snow piles glowed orange under the parking lot lights and thousands of stars twinkled in the crisp night sky. I could already feel my lips cracking. I was not prepared for this kind of cold. Neither was my skin.
Cold air cannot hold water. Air is uncomfortably dry when the mercury drops to single digits. Dryness is “the something there is that doesn’t love skin” as Robert Frost would say. Dry air dehydrates skin, causing smooth layers of cells to fall apart like a dilapidated wall. Having been breached, disrupted skin allows microbes and irritants to penetrate causing inflammation and itching.
Skin is a remarkable biotechnology: bricks of cells are held together with proteins and carbohydrates, sealed with just the right mix of water and cholesterol. Skin is living and adapts to its surroundings: when it’s hot and moist, it makes adjustments to keep you cool and dry. When it’s dry and cold, it adjusts to keep you warm and moist. Some changes, like constricting blood vessels, happens in minutes. Other changes, like increasing oil production to compensate for dry air, takes days.
When the humidity is low, any moisture on exposed skin quickly evaporates. Whipping winds worsen the process, leading to dry chapped skin. Sitting by the fire or cranking the car heat exposes your skin to hot, dry air; although it thaws your fingers, it exacerbates your already parched skin.
Your skin will not simply surrender; it will adapt to its new cold, low humidity environment, but this will take days.
If you have eczema or psoriasis or if you take medications like cholesterol pills (which can hamper the production of cholesterol for your skin), then it can be difficult for your skin to make a recovery. People with eczema or sensitive skin often struggle with itching and irritation throughout winter.
Here are a few tips to help your skin this winter:
1. Liberally apply a moisturizer, preferably one with a sealant like dimethicone to help seal in moisture. This adds a layer of protection and minimizes evaporation. Apply moisturizers throughout the day to your hands and face and twice a day to your body.
2. Omega-3 oils are healthy for your skin from the inside and the outside. Apply flaxseed oil to your skin after bathing and eat plenty of fish and nuts high in omega-3 fatty acids during winter.
3. Vacation in Maui where “the air is so dewy sweet with moisture that you don’t even have to lick the stamps.”