Dr Unnati Desai, GP National Lead with an interest in dermatology at Nuffield Health, has shared some of the more common effects the season has on our skin, as well as advice on how to recognise and treat them.
Environmental factors in winter
When we talk about the environment, I’m not just referencing the great outdoors. We need to consider all environments, both internal and external, and the impact of these on our skin.
Heating and air conditioning
Externally, the air is drier and colder, which can instantly dry out the epidermis. We’re also often travelling from the outdoors to indoors, and the shift in temperature from cold to warm can play a part – but not how you might think.
Heating, central air conditioning and heat from fireplaces can all impact our skin and dry it out. The best advice I can give is to ensure your skin is hydrated, both internally and externally.
Lifestyle habits also cause a huge impact to the skin. During winter, we’re often socialising more. Excess alcohol intake enlarges the blood vessels, resulting in flushing of the cheeks, which can be a short-term and long-term effect.
When blood vessels become damaged, this causes permanent redness and in chronic alcoholics, this results in red palms and soles. This can also result in larger oil glands and therefore larger pores.
Smoking is one of the main causes of premature skin aging by increasing the breakdown of collagen and reducing its production. Other effects include the development of lines around the lips from repetitive tightening of the orbicularis oris muscle (mouth) and a reduced blood supply to the skin due to the vessel constriction from smoking which results in a reduced oxygen and nutrient supply to the skin.
Tobacco can also cause discolouration to the skin and lips and an increased risk of oral cancers and respiratory diseases.
If you’re sacrificing sleep for socialising, this will also play its part. When we're sleep-deprived, the amygdala becomes more reactive. This region of the brain handles emotional processing and increased reactivity adds to stress.
Stress causes our bodies to increase their production of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones create inflammation and reduce the skin's firmness. Stress also increases sebum production.
Sebum is an oily substance that ensures our skin and hair are waterproof and not dry. In large amounts, it can leave the skin oily, increasing your risk of acne or other skin irritations. Sleep can reduce the body's stress response and avoid these negative beauty effects.
Skin conditions in winter
If you suffer from either psoriasis or eczema, both of these skin conditions can worsen during winter months. It’s important to increase the use of skin emollients to help keep the skin hydrated. Well hydrated skin is less likely to flare up, and if a flare up does occur, it may be less severe if the skin is well hydrated.
The greasier the better for the skin, but for many this doesn’t always feel great on a daily basis, so it’s best to use a cream in the day and a greasier emollient at night.
When washing your hands, use soap substitutes or emollient wash products to clean the skin without stripping it of its natural oils.
Nutrients and the skin
Many of us will eat well to feel physically healthy, but the impact of good nutrition on the skin should not be underestimated.
Eating a well-balanced diet helps ensures that the body gets all the vitamins it needs to maintain healthy skin. The following nutrients play a big part:
- Vitamin A: Helps maintain healthy, smooth skin and hair
- Riboflavin (B1): Helps prevent skin disorders, especially around the nose, lips and mouth
- Niacin (B3): Helps prevent skin disorders, especially on parts of the body exposed to the sun
- Vitamin B6: Helps prevent skin disorders and cracks around the mouth
- Vitamin C: Helps to heal the skin
- Vitamin D: Helps keep skin healthy (this is also known as the "sunshine vitamin" and is manufactured by the skin with the help of sunlight).
Top tips for a winter skincare regime
1) Wash your face once or twice a day
It’s important to clean your skin to get rid of bacteria that can cause infections and odour. However, cleaning too often can remove the protective oils that prevent your skin from drying out, leaving it vulnerable to infections. To understand more about different skin types read the section at the end of this guide.
2) Lower you soap usage
Harsh detergents in soap can dry out your skin. This can lead to constricted blood vessels which cannot adequately supply nutrients to the skin cells and therefore prolong the skin’s healing process. Using water on its own, or anti-bacterial gels, can help keep your skin hydrated and better protected from infections and inflammation.
3) Use skin-friendly products
During the winter, look for cleansing balms and oils that help to maintain the natural oil content in the skin. After cleansing, and before moisturising, use a toner to help rebalance the skin’s natural acid mantle (a fine layer on the surface of the skin that protects against bacteria and the elements). A non-alcohol based toner will help to balance the pH (potential of hydrogen) of the skin.
4) Buy natural moisturisers
Use natural moisturisers or a moisturiser full of ceramides (the skin’s hydrating factors) and hyaluronic acid (to attract water into the skin). The chemicals used in some moisturisers can cause an allergic reaction to those with sensitive skin.
5) Use products for three months before switching
Try not to ‘product cycle’ on the skin. Avoid swapping from one product to another before your skin has the chance to see if it ‘agrees’ with the product. It can take up to three skin cycles (a skin cycle is between 4 to 6 weeks) for skin condition to change, so you need to be patient and give it time – at least three months is recommended unless irritation occurs.
6) Speak to an expert
For those who are unsure of skin type or condition, it’s easier to self-diagnose (or use the internet) to try to work out what you have. However, many products on the market can contain ingredients that can be drying or reactive, and cause irritation and breakouts. If you’re unsure about your skin type, speak to a dermatologist or expert to determine this.
Year-round skincare tips
Although our skin changes by season, there are some processes that we should be following all year round.
Use sun protection
SPF is a product that isn't just to be used in over the summer. Regardless of the time of year, UVA and UVB rays can penetrate the skin and cause damage – even if you can’t see the sun.
Ultraviolet radiation (UV) damages the skin’s cellular DNA, which can cause both short-term and long-term damage. UVA and UVB are the two kinds of UV rays that can damage our skin and can cause cancer.
Many sunscreens only protect you from UVB radiation, and SPF (skin protection factor) only tells you how well the cream will protect you from UVB light. To make sure you're protected from both UVA and UVB, check the bottle for a star rating, which is the measure of UVA protection, as well as the SPF rating.
Three to five stars will protect you sufficiently. You can also look for the term ‘broad spectrum’ which means the sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB.
Hydration is just as important in winter as it is in summer. There is a classic misconception that we need water in summer as we sweat more, however external factors can dehydrate skin, and we also normally wear more layers which encourages the body to perspire. Water is the most important nutrient we consume.
The human body is anywhere from 55-75% water and without it, we could not survive. It is recommended that people drink eight glasses of water a day.
Understanding your skin
The skin is the largest organ of the body, and it consists of three layers; the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous fat.
The epidermis is the outer layer of the skin, and skin turnover is approximately 28 days. New cells form at the lower layer of the epidermis and then go through changes as they move upward to the outer most layer, where the cells are dead and adhesive, creating a natural barrier to keep moisture in and infective organisms out.
The base of the epidermis contains the melanocytes. These create melanin (the pigment that gives skin its colour) and give protection to the DNA within the skin cells.
The dermis is the middle and thickest layer of skin. It contains the blood supply, nerve endings, hair follicles, sweat glands and oil producing glands, providing the entire skin with the nutrients needed for optimal function. Collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid are within this layer, which provides the skin with its elasticity, strength and hydration.
The subcutaneous fat
The subcutaneous fat is the deepest layer of skin. It is mostly composed of fatty tissue and connective tissue. As well as containing blood vessels and nerves, this layer also insulates the body from extremes of temperature and provides cushioning to protect the body from injury.
Recognising different skin types
Although all skin is unique to an individual, and can be impacted through a multitude of factors, there are four different ‘types’ of skin; normal, oily, dry and combination.
- Normal, or ‘eudermic’, skin is considered to be balanced, not too oily and not too dry, with minimal texture or appearance irregularities.
- Dry skin is a type lacking on ‘oil’ or sebum, it lacks lipids and therefore does not retain moisture easily and is less elastic.
- Oily skin has an increase in sebum production and may be seen as a ‘sheen’ to the skin. An excess in sebum is often confused as being a result of dry skin, however this is not always the case.
- Combination skin is not a mix of dry and oily but can be a combination of all three skin types. In certain areas you may have normal, in others, dry and some oily. This is sometimes the most difficult to treat as it requires different products for different areas.
Last updated Tuesday 13 December 2022
First published on Friday 25 November 2022