Employee & Community Health

Protect your skin from three winter woes

12/12/2016 by Dr. Lynne Lillie

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Winter’s harsh winds, cold temps and dry air take a toll on your skin. But these tips can help protect and soothe your skin from three main winter woes:

Dry home heating. The heat in our homes is a dry as the Sahara. Not only does our skin feel dry and itchy, we also may experience dry throats and stuffy noses. The solution is adding humidity into the air with a free-standing humidifier or an in-furnace humidifier. Here’s a guide for determining ideal indoor winter humidity.

If the outdoor temperature is:

  • 20-40 degrees, indoor humidity shouldn’t be more than 40%.
  • 10-20 degrees, indoor humidity shouldn’t be more than 35%.
  • 0-10 degrees, indoor humidity shouldn’t be more than 30%.
  • 10-below to 0, indoor humidity shouldn’t be more than 25%.
  • 20-below to 10-below, indoor humidity shouldn’t be more than 20%.

Hot showers, baths. While a hot shower on a cold morning or a long soak in a hot tub after shoveling can feel so good, your skin pays a big price. Hot water sucks the moisture from our bodies, and some bubble baths and bath salts can make it worse. To protect your skin, follow these steps:

  • Turn down the temp. Use warm rather than hot water.
  • Minimize the use of drying soaps, and wash only the “pits, cracks and folds” instead of lathering up your entire body.
  • Follow the three-minute rule: apply a cream- or oil-based moisturizer within three minutes of stepping out of the bath or shower.

Moisturizers protect, rather than repair, your skin, so you want to apply ones that create a barrier to help hold in moisture. Choose those that are a cream rather than a lotion or are oil-based, such as baby oil or a petroleum-based gel. For your face, look for creams that don’t clog pores.

Don’t forget your hands and feet, which can crack, peel and even bleed during the winter. Rub creams or petroleum-based gels into your heels, hands and fingers.

Cold sunshine.  Although winter sun doesn’t warm us much, it hasn’t lost its power to burn exposed skin. Apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 before going outside, paying close attention to your face, hands, bare or bald spots on your scalp and the tips and backs of your ears. For winter sports, give your face added protection with a coating of petroleum-based gel.

If you have dry, itchy patches that may peel or bleed – even with applying moisturizer – and last longer than two to four weeks, have them evaluated by a member of your Care Team to make sure they aren’t a more serious skin condition or pre-cancerous. 

Dr. Lynne Lillie is a senior associate consultant and assistant professor of Family Medicine with Employee and Community Health (ECH) and has been a full-time practicing physician for over 20 years. She currently serves on the national board of directors for the American Academy of Family Physicians.