By Jenn Sinrich – Self
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During the winter, I am constantly lotioning up my legs, arms, and face. It’s like my skin is sucking up the moisture right away and, before I know it, I have to reapply. Commercials of women slathering themselves in the latest cream and then touching their immaculately smooth skin give us the idea that moisturizer is the answer to dry winter skin. But here’s the thing: “Moisturizer” is kind of a misnomer. Moisturizers add a little bit of hydration to the skin, but their primary purpose is to seal in the moisture. So, while finding the right products is a big part of the formula, boosting your skin’s hydration—and cutting out habits that dehydrate your skin—are the true backbone to a skin-care regimen that can really help your dry, tight, itchy skin.
We asked top dermatologists to unveil the top 11 culprits of dry skin and the solutions to soothe cracks and flakiness for good.
- You’re washing too often.
Over-cleansing is the number one reason for super dry skin. “The skin has a natural barrier, consisting of oil, water, and something called the ‘natural moisturizing factors,’” Lily Talakoub, M.D., dermatologist at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center, tells SELF. “When we wash our skin with a cleanser, soap, or body wash, it strips all the good skin hydrators off.” This is why she recommends oil-based cleansers to her patients dealing with bouts of dry skin and recommends that they only wash their face at night before bed. “In the morning, rinsing off in the shower is enough—cleansers should not be reapplied.”
- Your water is too hot.
I love a long hot shower, but, unfortunately, my skin just can’t handle the heat. You know how even washing with water can hurt its natural barrier? Well, the hotter the water, the better it is at that. “Excessive exposure to hot water can strip the skin of essential oils leading to irritation and inflammation,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “The water in your shower should be the temperature of what you would imagine a heated pool to be—approximately 84 degrees F.” He also recommends keeping showers short—a maximum of 10 minutes—and patting your skin dry rather than rubbing it to avoid stripping the skin even more.
- You’re using a cleanser that’s disturbing your skin’s natural pH.
When it comes to pH, you have acid on the low end and alkaline on the other (a pH of 7 is neural). Naturally, our skin is slightly acidic. This acidity is one of the ways our skin is protected from bacteria and other environmental aggressors. Traditional soaps (think old-school bar soaps) have an alkaline pH that can disrupt the outer skin layer. It’s better to use a cleanser that is pH-balanced to match the slightly acidic pH of the skin, says Zeichner. Another option is to find a cleanser with surfactants that effectively remove dirt without damaging the the outer skin layer. Zeichner recommends Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Foaming Cleanser ($10), which contains polymers that prevent the cleansing ingredient from penetrating into and irritating the skin.
- You’re exfoliating more than necessary.
Exfoliating is without a doubt an important step in your skin-care routine, but you can overdo it. Experts recommend keeping it to a maximum of twice a week and even less frequently than that for dry skin. “If you do exfoliate, it’s important to replenish the lost oils and moisture from your skin,” says Talakoub. Choose a moisturizer that is more oil than water like Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil ($72). You can apply it right on top of your daily moisturizer to help seal in hydration.
- You need a thicker moisturizer.
Just like you swap your crop tops and shorts for leggings and cable-knit sweaters once fall turns a corner, it’s important to switch up your skin-care regimen with the change in season. In winter there’s less moisture in the air, which causes the water in your skin to evaporate more quickly than in the humid summer months. This means you’re more likely to be flaking, cracking, and peeling. That’s why Jerome Garden, M.D., the director of the Physicians Laser and Dermatology Institute in Chicago, recommends switching out your lightweight lotions and moisturizers for a thicker ointment or cream that contains higher amounts of oils in the winter. Also look for products with ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids like Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 ($127). This trifecta mimics the make-up of the skin’s lipid layer, says Dendy Engelman, M.D., a dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York.
- You’re applying your moisturizer at the wrong time.
In addition to selecting the right kind of moisturizer, you also want to make sure you’re applying it correctly to avoid dry skin. Put on your moisturizer when your skin is still damp is the best way to make sure it absorbs fully. “After a shower, pat dry your skin with a towel and then apply the moisturizer which will lock in that moisture,” he says. Do the same each time you wash your hands during the day. If you wait until your skin is totally dry (say, more than five minutes after you wash), you’ll have missed the lock-it-in window.
- You’re not drinking enough.
It might sound too simple to be true, but where exactly did you think your skin was getting the water it needs to stay hydrated? “Proper hydration with water is important to keep fluid moving efficiently through the capillaries,” says Engelman. “It’s easier to get dehydrated when we are not making it a priority, or when it’s cold outside and water is evaporating faster.” In addition to chugging water on the reg, a diet rich in healthy fats can help to improve the moisture-holding capacity of the skin. You can get omega-3 and omega-6 oils from foods like salmon, flaxseed, and algae oil. “They keep the membrane around each skin cell healthy to lock moisture in the skin,” says Engelman.
- You’re taking certain medications that can dry out your skin.
Many medications—both over the counter and prescription—come with the side effect of dry skin. “Some meds dry your skin as part of their action, such as acne medications like benzoyl peroxide or retinoids, but other medications used for conditions like high blood pressure can dry your skin as well,” says Garden. Chemotherapy, for instance, can do a serious number on your skin (and nails, and hair). Not sure about a certain medication you’ve been taking? Run it by your doc and ask for a recommendation for treating this potential side effect.
- You’re battling a skin or other health-related condition.
Eczema and psoriasis are skin conditions that can lead to super dry skin. Additionally, other illnesses like thyroid disease and diabetes are known to dry out skin. It’s important to work with a doctor to treat the underlying cause of dryness. In these cases, it’s important to use moisturizers that are made specifically for sensitive skin, as certain ingredients such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and retinol are known to cause flare-ups.
- It’s genetic (womp, womp).
Some people are just born with genetically dry skin, making them more prone to flakiness than the average person. “Scientists have found many mutations in essential proteins that play a role in forming the skin barrier,” explains Garden. “These mutations leave people with naturally dry skin.” For people who have these hereditary predispositions, he recommends applying a heavy a moisturizer with ceramides, a moisturizing protein that’s easily lost in the skin of these patients.
- You don’t wear gloves in cold weather.
We’re not trying to be your mom here, but you really ought to get in the habit of wearing gloves when you go outside. Not because the cold makes you sick (it doesn’t), but because the cold air exacerbates dry skin. Engelman says, “The face and hands can be easily susceptible to dryness because they aren’t usually covered, unlike the rest of your body.” What’s worse, dry skin cracks more easily, which can be uncomfortable and lead to bleeding (and open cuts are invitations for infection). Keeping skin pliable with a good hydration regimen will make it less likely to crack. Engelman recommends showing extra care to the parts of the body that are more exposed and reapplying often.