Protecting your skin from winter's bite

Winter's chill can play havoc.
Winter's chill can play havoc. Photo: iStock

Brrrrr. It’s cold. I got up early this morning, got in the car and couldn’t see out the window. I was iced in. I had to scrape the frost off the windscreen before I could go anywhere.

It’s cold, colder than a proverbial cold thing, and loads chillier that many of us are used to.

You can feel it in your fingers, and probably your toes, too. And on your face, and maybe your shoulders and thighs as well. This mid-winter weather seems to dry the skin right out. Leaves it flaky and itchy.

But despite the cold you can never forget where you are - that Aussie sun’s still got some bite to it. I was watching a relative play footy on the weekend and though I was rugged up - it was both cold and windy - by the end of the final term, my cheeks and forehead had a not-very-healthy glow to them.

It’s not a whole lot of fun, but you can do something about it.

Dermal clinician Sally Risby explains why a brisk Australian winter can be just as harsh on our complexion as one of our baking-hot summers.

‘‘As the temperature decreases outside we turn up the  temperature inside,’’ says Risby, who works at Melbourne’s Flawless Rejuvenation skin clinic.

‘‘Humidity is relatively low in Australia, and artificial heating saps even more moisture from our everyday environments.

‘‘And we take part in outdoor activities that expose the skin to sunburn, windburn and even colder temperatures. All these external factors leads to dry and dehydrated skin.’’

And here, as they say in the ads, is ‘‘the science bit’’:

‘‘The part of the skin most affected by dehumidified environments is the outermost layer, the stratum corneum,’’ Risby says.

‘‘This layer of skin is the first line of defence against unwanted substances entering the body and excessive water leaving.  

‘‘The stratum corneum is built in a ‘bricks and mortar’ arrangement, the skin cells being the bricks and the ceramides and other lipids being the mortar. The mortar is what keeps water from escaping from the skin.

‘‘During winter, ceramide production changes, with decreased levels of long-chain ceramides.’’

These longer-chain ceramides give a greater skin barrier than short-chain ceramides and, Risby says, the fact there’s fewer of them in winter is one of the main reasons for dry skin at this time of year.

If that’s not bad enough, certain factors make dry winter skin even worse. Factors include getting older, taking long baths, as well as using soap and not washing it off properly. Which is a bit depressing - for me, anyway. Not only am I no spring chicken, but there’s only a few things  I like more on a cold winter’s night than a long soak in a hot tub.   

But there are some things you can do to help make your skin less dry in winter. Skin solutions range from the high-end Aspect Dr Redless Serum ($96.80) through to SkinMedica’s Sensitive Skin Cleanser ($44), and down to the Nivea For Men Sensitive range, which includes a $7.50 showel gel.

Risby also suggests trying the following lifestyle solutions:

  • Take short showers rather than baths.
  • Use soap-free cleansers.
  • Apply moisturiser liberally after showering, and when skin feels dry or itchy. The moisturiser should include a humectant (they help trap water) and occlusive emollients (they help reduce water loss).
  • Eat better. Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid and is needed in the production of long-chain ceramides. It can be found in oily fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel, as well as in nuts, avocados and flax seed oil. A diet containing these will help stop the flake and itch.

So eat oily fish, wash less rigorously and don’t use soap. Your skin will thank you, though I can’t vouch for your colleagues.

Do you suffer from itchy, flaky skin in winter? What do you do about it?   

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