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We all worry about the potential dangers that emerge in the winter: colds, flus, and injuries from weather hazards are among our greatest seasonal concerns. But one of the most common areas of winter health also goes unnoticed. Due to dry air, heating systems, and drinking too little water, skin conditions occur with greater regularity during the winter. Preexisting skin ailments are also exacerbated by winter weather. And while these conditions may seem minor in comparison to an outbreak of flu or injury from falling on ice, they can cause long-term distress and discomfort.
Your skin is an organ, the largest in your body, and it's deceptively complicated for its fairly blunt purposes. Your skin is your largest barrier of bodily defense against foreign pathogens, contains nerve endings, regulates heat, and both prevents moisture loss and guards against water flushing essential nutrients out of the body. Keeping your skin healthy is a great way to preserve many aspects of your health.
What It Is: This is the most common issue that many of us deal with every winter. Your skin dries out, and feels flaky, irritated, and itchy. This is the genesis for a whole host of other winter conditions, which we'll cover below.
Why It Happens: The humidity level of our environment helps keep our skin moisturized. The cold air of winter causes this to dip, and the dry air causes the water in our skin to evaporate more quickly. Other environmental factors in winter heighten these effects:
What Can Happen: Dry skin is primarily irritating, but even that can be enough to ruin your season. Flakiness, redness, itchiness, and tightness are common. But an important thing to remember is that flaky or tight skin means your skin may be cracking from dryness, which creates gaps in your protective barrier. You can lose nutrients or take in germs that way.
What to Take: There are so many products for dryness that it can be hard to know where to start looking. The market is full of moisturizers, but for winter you want to make sure you have a strong one; while water-based lotions may be fine in the summer, a heavier consistency product like a cream or ointment will create a moisture-retaining barrier on your skin. Don't wait 'til you dry out to start! Moisturizing daily is great prevention. You may also want to consider a humidifier for your house in order to introduce more moisture into the air when the heat's on.
What It Is: We've all had chapped lips during winter, and the even less lucky among us have had chapped or cracked hands and feet. Not only do these parts of our body redden and get rougher as they dry out, but they often crack, irritate, and sting.
Why It Happens: Our lips don't produce the oils that our skin does. Hands and feet have fewer sebaceous glands than other areas of our skin, so produce fewer oils that trap moisture. Winter's dryness affects these areas even more than the rest of your skin, compounded when you factor in that lips, hands, and feet are more subject to exposure to winter conditions.
What Can Happen: The stinging irritation is enough to want to do something about this pain, but the same issues with dry skin apply here: cracked skin can invite in germs, which can lead to infections.
What to Take: Lip balm will help prevent your lips from chapping and cracking, and some, like Chapstick SPF 15 Lip Moisturizer, also include UV protection. For hands or feet, our dry skin advice applies, and there are plenty of specialty creams available to give your hands and feet the protection they need.
What It Is: The ultraviolet rays of the sun are still present in the winter, and still dangerous. Many people ignore sun safety in the winter because sunburns are rare, which is largely due to UVB rays having a shorter wavelength and being less present. But UV rays, especially UVA, still strike the earth, even though your hemisphere is tilted away from the sun.
Why It Happens: The sun's still in the sky, but people make less of an effort to protect themselves. While its rays are hitting earth at a different angle than in summer snow is a great reflective surface, so you're getting much more exposure to UV radiation than you realize. In addition, sun exposure increases the higher your elevation rises above sea level, so skiers and snowboarders are getting even more UVA exposure when on the slopes.
What Can Happen: UV damage to your skin can cause sunspots, wrinkles, and premature aging, but the most important concern is skin cancer. 90% of all skin cancers are caused by overexposure to UV radiation.
What to Take: A high SPF sunscreen, at least SPF 30 or above, applied 30 minutes before sun exposure is the place to start. Make sure it's a broad spectrum one that covers both UVA and UVB rays! Some products combine a high SPF sunscreen with moisturizer, like Cetaphil's SPF 50 Daily Facial Moisturizer. Sunglasses or tinted lenses on your regular glasses can be important; UV rays can do serious damage to your eyeslight.
What It Is: Breakouts of chronic skin conditions that may afflict someone anytime during the year but often worsen in the winter. These include:
Why It Happens: The same conditions that cause dryness also come into play here: dry air, dry heat sources, not drinking enough water. In addition, many fibers used thick winter clothing can cause irritation, triggering a breakout (wool is a major offender here). It's probably not a surprise that both these diseases are most frequently found on areas where the skin is generally rougher and produces less oil, like hands, feet, and elbows.
What Can Happen: Eczema and psoriasis are chronic conditions that may lie dormant most of the time. As such, any breakout is the consequence, although infections can also result in an affected area. Prevention is the key here.
What to Take: Our tips on avoiding dryness and staying moisturized are valuable to help prevent flare-ups, but if you're already in the middle of one, you'll want products specifically made to relieve the effects of eczema and psoriasis. A strong anti-itch product will also help counter the uncomfortable itchiness that comes with breakouts.