Learn how to prevent and combat the worst winter skin symptoms.
Winter Skin Survival Guide
Facts About Dry SkinDry, irritated skin is your body’s way of sending an SOS signal―and it’s not just a matter of comfort. “Well-moisturized skin provides a barrier that keeps out infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and it protects against friction,” explains Kelly M. Cordoro, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. With a little knowledge, you can answer your skin’s distress call and enjoy a smooth season.
The skin’s moisture levels are controlled by lipids, oily substances produced by the outer layer of skin, the epidermis. An epidermis that is deficient in lipids allows water to escape from the skin and evaporate, causing dryness.
Skin regenerates on a monthly cycle. It sheds the dead, flattened cells that lie on its surface to make room for new, living cells to rise. "If the dead cells don’t shed as quickly as they should, thick, dry skin can form," says D’Anne M. Kleinsmith, a dermatologist in West Bloomfield, Michigan. This further impairs the skin’s normal barrier function. Environmental irritants such as bacteria can then sneak in, causing inflammation.
Some body parts are more prone to dryness than others, depending on their concentration of oil glands. The greatest concentrations are on the face (especially around the forehead and the nose), the chest, and the back, which all tend to have little trouble with dryness. The lower legs have few oil glands, which is why they dry out so easily. Lips have none, and unlike the skin on the rest of the body, lip tissue has no thick, protective outer layer, either. They are also constantly moisturized by saliva, then dried by breathing, which has an evaporative effect. Evaporation also dries out hands (from washing) and feet (from sweating). The thicker skin on elbows and knees has trouble retaining water, and its constant exposure to friction is also drying.
Hydration is important not only for skin’s health but also for its appearance, says New York City dermatologist Doris J. Day: “When skin is dehydrated, it droops and sags. It looks older, and wrinkles are more pronounced.”