Thursday, February 12, 2009

It’s Cold and Your Skin Is Suffering. So What Are You Doing to Moisturize?

Gabriella Minotto

Arctic waters leave long distance swimmer Lynne Cox's skin feeling "freeze-dried." Cox has developed a daily and nightly regimen of moisturizers to keep her skin from suffering.

Published: February 4, 2009

IT’S been a challenging winter for people with dry skin. The country has been blasted with Arctic air, making this winter the coldest so far in a decade, according to Scott Stephens, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Climatic Data Center. With the cold comes low humidity — sometimes as low as 10 percent — along with moisture-stripping winds that can cause chapped, flaky skin.

“We’ve studied fish that live in Arctic waters, searching for a natural antifreeze in their skin,” said Dr. Tom Mammone, executive director of research and development at Clinique Worldwide. “A few years ago, we began to study the protein extensin, a natural antifreeze found in carrots, which prevents the carrots from developing ice crystals in the ground. We found, when we tested it, that it can work on human skin, too. So we added it to our product to help to prevent skin from changing temperature and from forming damaging crystals that can impair the barrier.”

Dr. Neil Sadick, a dermatologist in Manhattan, said, “Using a product that contains a plant glycoprotein mixture such as this can make a significant difference, helping to keep cells humidified and keep the skin protected against environmental assault, such as cold, dry air.”

Yet among the thousands of expensive moisturizers on the market, many skin care experts across the country recommend some half-dozen or so tried and true, inexpensive brands: Eucerin Dry Skin Therapy Plus Intensive Repair Body Crème ($8.99), Nivea Creme ($7.99) and Aveeno Skin Relief Moisturizing Lotion ($9.29).

“In this kind of weather, moisturizers that contain humectants and fats that help repair that outer layer of skin can be a good strong barrier against the elements,” Dr. Greenberg said. Petrolatum products — think Vaseline Petroleum Jelly or Aquaphor — can be ideal for specific spot treatments on the face, he said, including chapped lips or cheeks, and dry, cracked skin on hands and feet.

One of winter’s biggest conundrums is not the fluctuation of temperature, say dermatologists, but how to best mitigate it, which can seem counterintuitive. A hot shower or bath after a long, cold day may seem like the best way to hydrate the skin, but you’ll be doing your skin more harm than good.

“Hot water exposure is among the worst things for your skin this time of year,” said Dr. Barbara Reed, a dermatologist in Denver. “People splash their face with hot water, jump into a hot bath or stand under the steaming hot water of a shower, and their skin suffers and reacts.”

The cycle is vicious, she said: “The affected skin releases a chemical that makes it feel itchy. So people scrub harder. And, once they’re out of the water, that itchiness may cause them to rub their skin dry with a towel.”

This breaks down the skin barrier further and makes the skin even more susceptible to drying and chapping. Instead, dermatologists recommend using only lukewarm water in the wintertime and a gentle cleanser, followed by a daily moisturizer applied within three minutes of being out of the water to lock in the moisture.

“My rule is the drier the skin, the thicker the moisturizer,” Dr. Reed said. “And, even in the wintertime, especially a dry one like this, I recommend people moisturize daily with a sunscreen of an S.P.F. of 50 or above.”

But, she said, as with many skin issues, her advice is not always taken until it’s too late. People are so preoccupied with coping with the cold and the wind damaging their skin, she said, “a lot of them don’t realize how harmful the sun can be — even if it’s just beaming through your car window.”