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How to Prevent Cracked and Dry Skin in the Winter

Don't let your hands go the way of the elephant.
Don't let your hands go the way of the elephant.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

It's easy to take your skin for granted, but as the largest organ in your body, it deserves some judicious attention and protection from the elements. After all, your skin has a big job to do: It keeps your other organs on the inside where they belong, helps expel impurities and uses perspiration to stabilize temperature fluctuations. It's also the nexus for thousands of sensory nerve endings that produce the sense of touch.

Your skin protects itself with a thin layer of slightly acidic moisture and oil sometimes referred to as the "acid mantle." This thin film repels bacteria and holds precious moisture in the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. Weather can have a big impact on the epidermis, especially if the acid mantle has been stripped off or otherwise compromised by makeup, soap, harsh cleansers, hormonal fluctuations or even dietary changes. Lotions, creams and some soaps can restore the acid mantle to the skin and help deliver vital moisture to the epidermis.

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During the winter when the humidity is naturally lower anyway, the environment in the average home tends to be dry. Cranking up the furnace exacerbates the problem by further reducing the moisture in interior rooms. If you don't have a humidifier to replace the moisture loss, you probably suffer from seasonal dry skin problems.

As dry air circulates through the artificially heated environment of your cozy house, it evaporates moisture wherever it finds it, including the moisture on the surface of your skin. This is the time when you'll start to notice flakes on your cheeks, cracks on the bottoms of your feet, parched lips and uncomfortably dry areas on the backs of your hands. Cracking, flaking, peeling and that uncomfortable stretched feeling are all symptoms of dry skin.

Using a humidifier will help, but there are also topical products that provide relief. Let's take a look at a few ingredients designed to put back what winter air takes away from your skin.

Where summer skin protection may involve using a water based moisturizer, winter protection requires a more aggressive approach. The idea here is to deliver plenty of moisture to the skin and include a secondary ingredient that will keep that moisture from evaporating. Moisturizing products for winter use employ two basic types of ingredients: humectants and emollients.

Humectants collect moisture it like microscopic reservoirs for your skin to draw on as it needs it. They can also pull moisture right out of the air. Emollients are oily substances like lanolin that create a barrier to keep moisture from evaporating. Together they're like a control system that attracts and locks moisture on the epidermis. Think of it as the skin's version of a water filled bottle. The humectants snag the water, and the emollients keep the water from going anywhere but into the skin.

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Look for these two types of ingredients when you shop for winter skin care products. It's a good idea to get into the habit of perusing ingredient lists. They'll help you understand what you're really buying. Skin care ingredients are typically listed in descending order based on their predominance by weight or volume. That means the first items on the list are the most abundant in the product.

Look for hydrating skin care products for winter use that contain significant concentrations of humectants with ingredient names like:

  • propylene glycol
  • alpha hydroxy acid
  • honey
  • hyaluronic acid
  • glycerin

Check labels for emollient ingredients like:

  • lanolin
  • mineral oil
  • triethylhexanoin
  • beeswax
  • coconut oil
  • shea butter
  • paraffin
  • jojoba seed oil
  • petrolatum
  • olive oil
  • avocado oil
  • squalene

Emollients are typically oil based products. That's a good thing, especially for winter use. If you already have oily or problem skin, you may need to experiment with different products to find one that works for you. Look for non-comedogenic moisturizing ingredients like jojoba seed oil that are less likely to clog pores and cause inflammation and blemishes.

Even though there are effective moisturizing ingredients on the market to protect dry skin in winter, the best protection comes from your skin's acid mantle. It keeps dirt and bacteria under control and acts as its own naturally pH balanced emollient. Remember, a slightly more acidic pH kills bacteria before it has a chance to cause problems. Although this natural barrier is powerful, it's also delicate. Harsh soaps can strip it away, leaving your skin more vulnerable to dry winter conditions. For clean, clear, moist and healthy winter skin, choose gentle soaps and other cleaning products that leave your skin's natural defense system intact.

Avoid soaps that contain strong perfumes, detergents, antibacterial ingredients and deodorants. They strip the skin's acid mantle and can be drying in their own right. Instead of relying on soap for deodorant protection or fragrance, invest in a separate deodorant and cologne you can apply to specific, small areas on the body instead of large areas of skin.

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If you want to relieve dryness on your hands, feet or other specific locations, moisturize and then apply a heavy-duty emollient like petroleum jelly or lanolin. Cover the area with a wrap, glove or sock, and let the extra moisture work its way into the skin for a few hours or overnight. Repeat the process as needed to reduce flaking, peeling and cracking.

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Sources

  • ABC News. "Prevent Dry Skin With These Tips." Good Morning America. 11/4/08. (8/21/12). http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=6172006#.UDflnKOuVp4
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dry skin: Tips for relieving." (8/21/12). http://www.aad.org/skin-conditions/dermatology-a-to-z/dry-skin/tips
  • Cole, Gary W. "Dry Skin." Medicine Net. 1/8/12. (8/21/12). http://www.medicinenet.com/dry_skin/article.htm
  • Dakss, Brian. "Moisturizing Your Dry Winter Skin." CBS News. 1/3/06. (8/21/12). http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/01/03/earlyshow/living/beauty/main1175347.shtml
  • FDA. "Cosmetic Labeling & Label Claims - Overview." 1/23/12. (8/21/12). http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/CosmeticLabelingLabelClaims/default.htm
  • Leonard, Crystal. "The Sense of Touch and How It Affects Development." Serendip. 5/14/09. (8/21/12). http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/4356
  • Mayo Clinic. "Moisturizers 101: Options for Softer Skin." 12/16/10. (8/21/12). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/moisturizers/SN00042
  • Padykula, Jessica. "Best products for dry skin." She Knows. 2/23/11. (8/21/12). http://www.sheknows.com/beauty-and-style/articles/824791/best-products-for-dry-skin
  • Skin Care Physicians. "Dermatologists' Top 10 Tips for Relieving Dry Skin." (8/21/12). http://www.skincarephysicians.com/agingskinnet/winter_skin.html
  • Skin Care Physicians. "Winter Skin Care Guidelines." 2010. (8/21/12). http://www.skincarephysicians.com/eczemanet/winterizing_tips.html
  • Wu, Jessica. "What Kind of Moisturizer Is Best for Cold Weather?" Everyday Health. 10/10/08. (8/21/12). http://www.everydayhealth.com/dry-skin/dry-skin-cold-weather.aspx

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