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It’s all about moisture: winter skin care

Feb. 28, 2012

By Sarah Folk

Unless you are part of the population that travels down south during our long Canadian winters, you are familiar with the dry, irritable, cracked skin that comes with the cold weather. But staying up north shouldn’t mean that your skin has to suffer.

Skin management is more important than ever for Canadians, due to the environmental stress placed on our skin. Not only do we have to worry about cold temperatures and bitter winds, but we also can’t forget about proper sun protection.

Dr. Vince Bertucci, a dermatologist with the Ricky Kanee Schachter Dermatology Centre at Women’s College Hospital, explains the importance of skin management and choosing moisturizers wisely. He offers tips and advice on maintaining healthy skin despite the harsh weather conditions.

Canadian skin

Maintaining healthy skin can be a challenge with our Canadian climate, especially during the winter months. Having the heat on in the winter takes away the moisture in the environment, causing your skin to become dry and cracked.

“Furthermore, some Canadians seem to be germ phobic,” explains Dr. Bertucci. “We wash regularly and even excessively, stripping away the lipids, oils, and nutrients from our hands.” By washing our hands, we break down the barrier that protects our skin. This can often lead to irritable skin rashes (referred to as irritant dermatitis), and can worsen cases of eczema.

“Lipids are an essential component of the outermost layer of skin, which is critical in preventing water loss from the skin,” explains Dr. Bertucci. Important lipids such as ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids are essential for normal skin function. People with skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema have been found to have a deficiency of these surface lipids.

“If you have a predisposition to eczema, it’s important to take extra precautions,” advises Dr. Bertucci. He says that it’s most common to see people who have neglected to care for their eczema during the winter. For these individuals, using a moisturizer that contains ceramides often helps to protect and repair the skin damage.

The low-down on moisturizers

There are so many skin care products available that sometimes it’s hard to know which ones are the best for your skin. Dr. Bertucci provides us with a list of three different types of moisturizers and their essential ingredients. Choosing a moisturizer is an important process and the decision should be based on your personal skin care needs.

1. Barrier products contain ingredients that sit on the skin and act as a protective film in order to prevent moisture loss. Ingredients may include the following:

  • petroleum jelly
  • silicone
  • vegetable oils (grape seed oil and soybean oil)
  • animal oils (mink oil and emu oil)
  • phospholipids
  • sterols (cholesterol)

“Petroleum jelly is the most effective occlusive moisturizer which reduces water loss by 99 per cent,” explains Dr. Bertucci.

2. Humectants attract moisture and store it in the skin. They help to improve skin smoothness by inducing the swelling of skin cells, minimizing the space between them.  Ingredients may include the following:

  • hyaluronic acid
  • lactic acid
  • glycerin
  • urea

“Note that urea and lactic acid may be irritating in individuals with sensitive skin,” advises Dr. Bertucci. It’s best to look for fragrance-free products if you experience skin sensitivities.

3. Emollients make the skin soft by filling in spaces between the skin cells with moisturizer. Ingredients may include the following:

  • almond oil
  • octyl dodecanol
  • isopropyl stearate

Making changes

A change in weather should result in a change to your skin care routine. Maintaining healthy skin is all about trapping in the moisture that is lost through environmental factors. In the winter, this becomes more important, as more moisture is lost. Dr. Bertucci gives his top four tips for winter skin management:

1. Hydrate regularly

  • “One misconception is that moisturizers actually put water back into the skin,” says Dr. Bertucci. Hydration is just as important internally as it is externally – drink more water to help nourish your skin from the inside-out.
  • Moisturizers work by reducing water loss from the skin, helping to repair the skin’s natural barrier function. Using a full-body moisturizer on a regular basis will help rejuvenate the skin.
  • Don’t forget that your lips need moisturizer too!

2. Shower

  • Having an excessively hot shower or bath may cause the same detrimental effects as keeping high temperatures in your home. In order to protect the moisture compounds in your skin, try to maintain a moderate temperature.
  • While in the shower, Dr. Bertucci recommends using a moisturizing body wash such as Dove sensitive skin or Olay Ribbons body wash. Facial wash should be chosen based on your skin type.
  • Within the first five or 10 minutes of getting out of the shower, it’s best to pat yourself dry and apply a full body moisturizer. Avoid overly rubbing your skin, as this may cause skin irritation.

3. Cover up

  • Protecting yourself from wind burn is as easy as covering up. Use a scarf to hide your neck and parts of your face, and a hat to cover your ears.

4. Don’t forget about the dangers of the sun

“In the winter, we often don’t spend adequate time protecting ourselves,” says Dr. Bertucci. We sometimes forget about sun exposure when we participate in outdoor activities and fail to use sunscreen while skiing, skating or snowboarding.

“This can be very dangerous,” warns Dr. Bertucci. “On bright sunny days, you are directly exposed to the sun’s rays, which can be further magnified when they reflect off the snow and ice.” He recommends an SPF of 30 or higher when you are outside, and don’t forget to reapply regularly.


For more information on Dr. Bertucci and his practice, please visit the Ricky Kanee Schachter Dermatology Centre or www.drbertucci.com.

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital