Canadians are used to harsh weather in the winter, especially for those of us with dry skin or eczema. This year is a La Niña year, and a more extreme winter is expected. Small environmental differences can be what separates normal skin from itchy, inflamed skin that is peeling off. Some preparation and foresight can save you a lot of pain and frustration this season.
Winter is always a tough time for those of us with dry skin or eczema. It has all the environmental factors that make it tough on the skin:
- Low humidity
- Low temperature
- Indoor heating
- Hot baths or showers
The main culprit is low temperature and humidity. Our natural reaction to the cold is to head indoors, turn on the heater, and enjoy a nice hot bath. Unfortunately, this also has a drying effect on our skin. Winters are a challenge for anyone suffering from dry skin, and we need to be prepared to keep our skin safe. There are some additional factors this year that spells bad news for those with dry skin:
- 2020 is a La Niña year, and extreme weather is expected.1
- Every one is hand washing more with COVID-19.
- Hand sanitizers can also be drying to the skin.
- Stress can affect the immune system and it will show on the skin.
The barrier function of the skin is what protects us from the outside world. The skin acts as a wall, keeping everything from dirt, bacteria, and virus out of our system. For people with eczema or atopic dermatitis, the barrier function is weakened due to a lack of a protein called filaggrin.2 When humidity and temperature drop, it adds stress to the barrier function, even for people with healthy skin. Other factors also play a role. COVID-19 has also changed the frequency of exposure to water, hand sanitizers, and soap, which irritate the skin. Stress and lifestyle can impact the skin as well. For many reasons, it’s going to be a harsh winter for Canadians this year, but for those of us with dry skin and eczema, we need to be prepared to protect ourselves.
Prevent the Winter Flare-Up
Most Canadians are used to severe winters, but for those with dry skin and eczema or otherwise have a weakened barrier function, we need some extra help this year. The first step is to minimize environmental damage. Even though we cannot control the weather, we still have a lot of control over how exposed our skin is to the elements.
Bath and Showers: Washing is essential, but unfortunately it’s drying for the skin. A lot of moisture is lost as the water evaporates, paradoxically removing moisture away from the skin. Hot water also has a damaging effect on the skin, so you want to use warm or tepid water and to keep showers short whenever possible. Body washes can also help seal in some moisture. Look for products that contain ceramides to help seal in moisture.
Stay Warm: The cold temperatures will wear away at the barrier function, and it’s important to protect your skin from damage. Staying warm also keeps you one step ahead. When we’re cold, we’re much more likely to sit in front of a heater, fireplace, or take hot baths, which all hurt your skin. Instead layering clothing helps keep the body warm and protect the skin at the same time.
Humidifier: Dry air is a common problem during the winter. Aside from being hard on the skin, it can also contribute to irritated eyes, nasal congestion, and worsen cold and flu symptoms. The ideal humidity in the house is between 30% and 50%. If it’s too humid, mold can become a problem as well. A hygrometer can be bought at any hardware store to measure the humidity inside your home.
Always Follow up with a Moisturizer
We do everything we can to protect ourselves from the environment, but sometimes it just isn’t enough. The winter can overwhelm the skin’s natural defenses, and for those who don’t produce enough sebum or skin oil, it can be a disaster. Moisturizers can help your skin when it needs them. It’s a useful tool for everyone but necessary for people with eczema. When the skin can’t produce enough oil to lubricate skin, moisturizers can help replace it. Moisturizers have three key components:
Humectants: These are molecules that draw water from their surroundings. When the skin feels dry, it’s because the very surface of the skin lacks moisture. Humectants can help attract moisture from the lower layers of the skin and the atmosphere if humidity is high enough. Glycerin, hyaluronic acid, sorbitol, lactic acid, and urea are commonly used humectants in moisturizers.
Occlusive Agents: Occlusive agents reduce the moisture loss that occurs through evaporation. Bathing dries the skin because more moisture is lost through evaporation than is absorbed into the skin. Occlusive agents work well with humectant to attract and retain water and are especially important for those with dry skin. Petrolatum, mineral oil, and squalene are some common examples of occlusive agents.
Emollients: Emollients are lipids and oils that help fill in the cracks of the skin. It emulates the structure of the skin, which is often compared to brick and mortar. People with eczema don’t produce enough of the “mortar” to fill in the space between the corneocytes. Emollients like lanolin and shea butter help to fill in and lubricate the skin.
Moisturizers contain many other ingredients that help keep the formulation intact, safe, and with the right consistency, but these three are the main actives in moisturizers. They emulate the role of skin oil or sebum, lending a helping hand when the skin needs it. Moisturizers are a must-have item this winter if you have eczema or a tendency for dry skin. Even if you usually have healthy skin, everyone can use a bit of help during the dry winter season.
It’s not enough to buy moisturizers. Regular use is what protects your skin, so it’s important to buy a product that’s within your budget and one that is pleasant for you to use.
Placement Matters: Ideally, you want moisturizers available at hand everywhere. Having a small portable moisturizer is ideal. If this won’t work for you, try placing them in strategic locations where it serves to remind you to apply them.
Bathroom: moisturize your hands after a bath, shower, or handwashing to lock in the water.
Workplace – if you don’t work at home, it’s good to have moisturizers at hand.
Close to the door – it reminds you to apply moisturizers before you leave the house and face the cold dry air.
Placing them in visible locations serves as a reminder and makes the habit more likely to stick.
Sunscreens: Sunscreens might seem odd during winter, but UV light is still a thing. UVA light levels don’t drop much in the winter. UV damage dries the skin and can worsen the symptoms of dry skin. If you aren’t in the habit of applying sunscreen, try a moisturizer that contains sunscreen. Convenience matters.
Finally, if your skin does become dry and crack despite your best efforts, consider visiting a dermatologist in person or online if that option is available to you. Sometimes a prescription-strength product can control flare-ups so that the skin can regain its barrier again.