Your torso itches, your knuckles are cracked, and after months of clear sailing your complexion is suddenly stormy. In more ways than one, the onset of cold weather seriously screws with your hide.
Apart from the drop in humidity, autumn wind draws moisture from your skin, says Adam Friedman, MD, an associate professor of dermatology and residency program director at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. At the same time, you’re taking longer and hotter showers, your heating system is drying out the air in your place, and you’re obsessively washing your hands to ward off seasonal bugs. “All of these things combine to create the perfect recipe for dry skin,” Friedman says.
More bad news: Apart from feeling itchy and tight, the fissures that open between your desiccated skin cells create gaps for sickness-causing germs to burrow their way into your system, Friedman says. Dry air also sucks moisture from the mucous membranes in your nose, ears, and other orifices, rendering them less effective at blocking out microorganisms.
Meanwhile, your complexion suddenly sucks. Just as dryness allows germs to penetrate your hide, dirt and debris have an easier time sneaking into your skin. The inflammation dryness causes also leads to breakouts, Friedman says.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT
DON’T OVER WASH
While most doctors will tell you to scrub incessantly to prevent seasonal colds, overdoing it can actually increase your risks (for all the reasons mentioned above). That’s why Friedman recommends limiting your hand washing as much as possible. “Most soaps are basic, not acidic, so they shift the acid profile in our skin,” he says. That shift breaks down “the machinery” by which your skin turns over and regenerates, which exacerbates dryness.
Despite the marketing claims, harsh antibacterial soaps are no more effective at protecting you from germs than regular soaps. A mild cleanser—something like Dove Sensitive Skin—will clean your hands just as thoroughly without the same risks of over-drying.
Friedman’s washing warnings also apply to acne sufferers. “A lot of men think they should wash their face more when they start breaking out, but that usually makes the problem worse,” he says. Clean your face just once a day with a mild cleanser, and you’ll avoid exacerbating the dryness issue.
APPLY LOTION THE RIGHT WAY
Most people reach for moisturizer only when their skin hits an advanced stage of red, itchy misery. And when they do apply lotion, they rub it onto bone-dry skin. That’s the wrong way to go about things, Friedman says. You’ve heard an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that maxim holds when it comes to your hide. By starting on moisturizer before your skin dries out, you’ll have a much simpler time keeping it hydrated, he says.
Also, always apply moisturizers to slightly damp skin. These creams are moisture retainers, not moisture creators, Friedman says. “Applying then to damp skin allows them to lock in that water,” he says. The time just after you wash your hands or jump out of the shower is a great opportunity to lube up.
Friedman recommends lotions from the big national brands—Aveeno, Eucerin, CeraVe, etc. “They have the money and resources to ensure their products are based on the biology of your skin, and work as advertised,” he says. When it comes to your face, always go with “non-comedogenic” moisturizers, which won’t block pores and cause breakouts.
Sleep is primetime for skin regeneration, Friedman says. It’s also a time when your hide is especially vulnerable. “We lose a lot of moisture while we sleep, because that’s when skin turns over,” he says. To combat this, he recommends sleeping with a humidifier close to your bed.
This is also a great time to address your cracked and itchy mitts. Friedman suggests soaking your hands for a minute or two in lukewarm water, coating the dry spots with Vaseline, and stretching on nitrile gloves ($11, amazon.com). “Sleep with those on once or twice a week,” he says. “If that doesn’t work, you need to see a dermatologist.”