For many people, the winter months bring a chronic feeling of dry skin. If you’re someone who’s constantly wielding new lotions in the battle against itchy hands, arms and legs, the solutions may be simpler than you think.
While moisturizing properly is important, dermatologists say there are some other easy habits that can increase the skin’s natural moisture and prevent it from getting dehydrated. Here are some of their best tips.
Shorten your showers
The most important activity that affects skin dryness is your shower. Many people love a long, hot shower after a day of walking around in the cold, but experts say this habit can harm your skin’s natural barrier. “Excessive exposure to hot water strips the skin of essential natural oils in the outer layer that maintain proper barrier function,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Showers should last no more than 10 minutes, according to Zeichner, and he recommends people keep the temperature at around 84 degrees, or what you’d feel in a heated pool.
Be wary of drying skin products
The products you use to wash your skin can also have an effect. Traditional soaps have an alkaline pH that can disrupt your skin’s naturally acidic surface and contribute to drying it out. To avoid this, try using a cleanser that is pH balanced to match your body’s slightly acidic nature, says Zeichner, or look for a “gentle” cleanser that will get rid of dirt without disturbing the skin.
What about products that scrub your skin? Exfoliation can be helpful, but whether your typical routine involves a brush or a scrubbing face wash, you may want to back off in the wintertime. Pay attention to what your skin is asking for, says Dr. Marie Leger, a dermatologist at Weill-Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian. “If your skin is getting dry and cracked, maybe paring off those products and adding them back in one by one to see how you can tolerate it is a good idea,” she says.
Once you’ve taken your shower or washed your face, then it’s time to moisturize. Make sure to pat skin dry rather than rub it with a towel. Then apply lotion while your skin is still damp for the best chance at absorption. You can also do this each time you wash your hands during the day, Leger says.
As for what kind of moisturizer to use, thicker ointments and creams with high oil contents are best for winter skin, according to Leger. But the top factor is to find something you’ll enjoy using. “People have to find what’s comfortable for them or else they’re not going to use it at all and then they’re back to square one,” she says.
Just don’t go overboard. While research has not found a problem with over-moisturizing, Zeichner says that some people who constantly apply lotion may feel like their skin becomes dependent on the external hydration. “We don’t have great data, but the idea is that perhaps when a very thick ointment is applied to the skin around the clock, the skin doesn’t experience the natural environment it’s sitting in,” Zeichner says. If the skin doesn’t think its atmosphere is dry, it won’t work to maintain its own hydration, which will then cause it to look more dry and create a vicious cycle, encouraging you to moisturize more. As long as you’re giving your skin space to breathe, moisturize away.
Find a routine
Other tips include using a humidifier while you sleep, which can be particularly helpful for dry skin around your face and nose. The amount of water you drink won’t actually affect your skin’s hydration, according to Zeichner, and there aren’t great dietary solutions to dry skin. But he does recommend that people eat foods with plenty of antioxidants and fatty acids, which help provide the building blocks for healthy skin cells.
Whichever methods you try, it’s important to come up with a routine that’s simple and that you can stick with, says Leger. “I see a lot of people coming to me with ‘dry skin’ who actually have contact allergies,” she says. “Rather than trying a million different products, sometimes it’s better to stick with one simple thing, see if it works, and if it doesn’t then move on.” And of course, if you notice sudden changes or think you might have a more serious skin condition, Leger recommends you talk to a dermatologist.