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Eleven Tips for Healthy Winter Skin

After so many newsletters about pretty deep topics, I thought I’d get really superficial this week and talk about skin. Winter’s dryness and cold plus extra clothing, obsessive handwashing, and indoor heating form a combination that can be very hard on our skin. My whole life, I’ve had skin that dislikes winter. Even if your skin doesn’t get flaky or irritated, taking good care of your skin at this time of year may still help it retain its youthful elasticity and luster. Here are eleven self-care recommendations:

Drink plenty of water. Divide the number of pounds you weigh in half – that’s the number of ounces of watacer to drink evenly over the course of the day (ideally at room temperature).

Eat moistening foods. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, certain foods are considered to build vital fluids in the body which are disseminated to the skin and affect skin moisture. Some of these foods include: sesame seeds (especially the black kind), dark leafy greens, berries, pears, oranges, watermelon, string beans, tomatoes, flax seed, hemp seed, tomatoes, plums, mung beans and sprouts, cucumber, water chestnuts, eggs, fish, nuts, seed and nut oils.

Get a humidifier. In our house in Colorado, the usual tabletop humidifiers make very little difference in the moisture of the air, but I’ve heard good things about “whole house humidifiers” and I plan to get one for our home soon. They hook up to your water line (so you don’t need to refill them) and moisten the air that moves through your heating system. The units cost a couple hundred dollars and installation is a few hundred more (or you could do it yourself if you’re handy).

Put oil on your skin. Lotions are emulsions of oil and water, and while they’re moisturizing, they aim to be well absorbed and to feel light and residue-free. As such, lighter lotions may not cut it if you have very dry skin, or they may need to be applied many times a day. If your skin suffers during the winter, you may need something that functions more as a barrier – that impedes water loss through the skin and protects against the elements – such as: pure oil (coconut, jojoba, grape seed, sesame (untoasted), etc.); a thicker lotion that contains more oil or heavier oils (like castor, rosehip seed, or tamanu oil); or a semi-solid lotion with even heavier, waxy ingredients (shea butter, cocoa butter, or beeswax). However, the richest of these (shea butter and wax) are probably too heavy for the face and could clog your pores.

Exfoliate gently before moisturizing and apply moisturizer to still-damp skin. As long as your skin isn’t irritated, gently removing the top layer of dead cells will make it easier for moisturizers to penetrate. I like a coarse cloth, raw silk gloves, or a natural plant bristle brush for exfoliating the whole body. After bathing, you have a window of a few minutes during which moisturizers will work best. Personally, I enjoy the combination of dry skin brushing followed by a shower and then a brisk self-massage with oil (a practice called abhyanga in Ayurveda).

Use less soap. Soap dries out your skin and is usually unnecessary.

If your hands get chapped, dry them thoroughly after washing. Letting your skin air dry slowly usually results in drier skin. This is especially important for people with eczema.

Avoid colors, synthetic fragrances, and other chemicals in your detergents and body care products. Dry winter skin is often extra sensitive to chemicals – and absorbs them more effectively.

Wash in cooler water. If your skin becomes more sensitive in the winter, and especially if you have a rash, hot water will often make it worse. Bathe in the coolest water you can tolerate.

Use sunscreen. I don’t buy into the idea that we should wear sunscreen constantly, but judicious use has some benefits. Sun exposure feels good, activates immune cells, and stimulates vitamin D production in our skin, which is beneficial to our health in numerous ways. But the UV portion of sunlight causes damage to our tissues through a process called oxidation. (It’s the same process that causes oils to go rancid, vitamins to spoil, and meat to turn grey.)

We all know sunburns are bad, but even without burning, extended exposure to UV light tends to cause yellowing, dryness, and wrinkling of our skin. It damages fibers called elastin, which, as you might guess from the name, gives our skin its elasticity. Over the years, this makes our skin saggy and more prone to tearing. UV light also blesses us with age spots or “liver spots.” And finally, it’s a major risk factor in skin cancers, especially the non-melanoma kinds. So, if you like youthful skin, sunscreen is a good idea – especially in the middle of the day – and it’s easy to forget to use it in the winter. Winter sun isn’t usually direct enough to stimulate vitamin D synthesis, but it’s still strong enough to cause skin damage (especially in sunny places).

I don’t like chemical sunscreens, so I steer my patients to mineral-based ones – zinc oxide and titanium oxide. Zinc is the best option: it’s an excellent skin soother and barrier, and it works better than any other sunscreen chemical approved for use in the U.S. It’s the main ingredient in many diaper rash ointments and was responsible for that classic white stripe on lifeguards’ noses years ago.

Nowadays, most mineral sunscreens aren’t quite as opaque – some are completely transparent – probably because manufacturers have gotten better at creating smaller particles of zinc and titanium. However, this presents a big unknown – are these tiny “nanoparticles” entering our cells and doing something bad? In response to initial concerns, some companies now sell “non-nano” mineral sunscreens, but according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) even the mineral particles in these products would technically be considered “nano” sized.

Yet, EWG still believes they are our best option. A mixture of particle sizes, some nano and some larger, seems to offer the best sun protection, and the evidence so far indicates that they don’t penetrate into the skin far enough to encounter living cells. However, if you were to inhale a bunch of mineral sunscreen in powder or spray form, that wouldn’t be good for your lungs.

See a good skin care specialist. Believe it or not, I was co-owner of a spa for a couple years before I got my first facial. If I was going to take the time to get a spa treatment, I’d always opt for a massage. But one year, on my birthday, Briana scheduled a facial for me, and it was just lovely. Having someone steam and massage oils into your face is deeply relaxing. And I had to admit, my skin was glowing afterwards. I highly recommend it.

I hope these recommendations help you get through the winter with moister, healthier, happier skin.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

4 thoughts on “Eleven Tips for Healthy Winter Skin

  1. Great tips! I will be implementing several of these in my daily routine.

    1. Thanks, Dana. I hope they help.

  2. I feel nurtured by a good friend this morning. Thank you.

    1. I’m glad to hear it! Be well.

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