Dry, windy, wintry weather can make skin itchy and irritated. You might think that standing in a steamy shower would help hydrate your skin. But long showers, particularly in hot water, can actually have the opposite effect. "Our skin contains special proteins and fats that make up a protective barrier and lock in moisture to protect us from harsh outside environments. Dry winter air, forced-air heating, extremes of temperature and the frequent hot baths and showers we take all strip our skin of this natural protection," says Dr. Megan Moore, a dermatologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
Long or frequent showers remove protective oils that the skin naturally produces. When the oils are lost, water from the skin also escapes. Using harsh soap can exacerbate the effect. "Soap cleansers are alkaline, which are damaging to the skin," says Dr. Christina Steil, a dermatologist with a practice just outside Chicago. They can aggravate dryness and leave your skin feeling tight and even, eventually, lead to a rash. "Many patients visit their doctors during the winters for treatment of these rashes that could have been prevented if they would have avoided a soap cleanser during the dry winter months," says Steil.
Try using a mild soap, particularly one designed for sensitive skin, for those areas that require extra scrubbing—like your face, under your arms, and in the groin area. Or replace your traditional soap with an oil-infused shower gel; the oil can replace the natural oils that the water strips from your skin. Dermatologists at the University of Iowa recommend taking a short shower (no more than 10 minutes) in lukewarm, rather than hot, water. After showering, gently pat—don't rub—the skin partially dry with a towel. Then apply a moisturizer to seal the water into the skin before it can evaporate.
Moore recommends thicker, greasier ointments and creams (like those found in jars and tubs) instead of traditional lotions. Look for one with ingredients like petrolatum, glycerin, hyaluronic acid and cyclomethicone—all of which help prevent water loss from your skin. Plain old Vaseline petroleum jelly is one of Moore's favorites.
For more skincare tips, check out our secrets to youthful skin.