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10 tips from dermatologists for hydrated skin this winter

Dry skin season does not have to come for you.

Dry skin season does not have to come for you

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

This article was originally published December 18, 2019 and was updated November 18, 2020 to reflect current product prices.

Whether you're the type who loves bundling up and braving the cold or someone who dreads that deep-freeze feeling, there's at least one winter truth we can all agree on: it's awful for our skin. Dryness and dullness become the reality for Canadians as the temperatures dip from coast to coast, making our glowy complexions as distant a reality as backyard BBQs and poolside lounging. 

"In the winter, humidity levels go down," explains Dr. Julia Carroll, dermatologist at Compass Dermatology in Toronto. "The air is constantly trying to recoup that humidity from any source it can, so you'll notice more static — and that your plants need watering more often." The perfect target for those moisture-seeking molecules? "Humans walking around that are 70 per cent water," says Dr. Carroll. With the air around us soaking up our water stores, we get left with parched, flaky and easily irritated skin.  

This seasonal struggle can get even worse with age, adds Dr. Laurie Parsons, clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Calgary's Cummings School of Medicine: "As we get older, our skin gets thinner, particularly in sun-exposed areas, plus we produce less oil." 

How to defend against the drought? We tapped Dr. Carroll and Dr. Parsons for the skincare steps we should all be following this winter. 

Ease up with the cleanser

"There's really no need for us to lather up our bodies from top to bottom every single day," says Dr. Parsons, who recommends sticking to areas that need it, such as the groin, underarms, feet and face. Soap is designed to remove oil, after all, which can leave your skin feeling dry and tight. Instead, stick to water for most of your body, and use a gentle unscented cleanser where needed. "Look for products that have built-in moisturizers or oils, that way you are leaving a layer of moisture behind on the areas you do wash," says Dr. Carroll. 

Cool it in the shower

As tempting as it may be to crank up your shower on winter's coldest days, the intense heat can disrupt your skin's natural barrier that's designed to lock moisture in. The temperature should be just warm enough to be comfortable: "If it's too hot for a five-year-old, it's too hot for you," says Dr. Parsons. That said, showers aren't all bad. "It's important to expose your skin to water every day if you can," Dr. Parsons adds. She recommends spending 10 to 15 minutes under the warm water to expose your stratum corneum — the outermost layer of your skin — to moisture. "Any longer than that and studies have shown that you'll start to actually lose water; any less and you're not getting enough moisture onto the surface of your skin to be absorbed."

Moisturize naked

Yes, that's right. "Don't get half-dressed then start to moisturize," says Dr. Carroll. "You won't be as liberal with the product." Slather on a lotion or cream right out of the shower — or else you'll lose the water's moisturizing benefit altogether. "When you step out of the shower, your stratum corneum is now hydrated, but if you don't put an oily layer on top of that to prevent water loss, then your skin is actually going to get drier," says Dr. Parsons. And while it can be tempting to grab a moisturizer that smells like your favourite sugary treat or a tropical getaway, both derms recommend sticking to a fragrance-free formula to avoid irritating dry skin. 

Don't deprive oil-prone skin

Just like for your body, it's important to apply unscented moisturizer after washing your face, too, even if your skins tends to be oily or acne-prone. "You can have oily skin and still have dry skin or a barrier that's not intact underneath," says Dr. Carroll. That's because skin's oil (sebum) is only one part of the equation; humectants, such as amino acids or sugar, are also crucial for drawing water into your skin. Pick a lightweight, oil-free moisturizer to keep things balanced, especially if you're using pimple-fighting treatments. "Prescription or over-the-counter acne products tend to be drying and irritating, so you need to prime your skin and have your skin barrier intact in order to be able to tolerate the products that will help your acne," says Dr. Carroll.

Stick with sunscreen

Even though it doesn't seem sunny, harmful rays remain present in the winter, says Dr. Carroll. "Ultraviolet A levels don't change in one location from season to season, and ultraviolet A levels are the ones that go deep and cause sun damage." If you're staying inside for most of your day, applying a daily moisturizer with SPF 30 is sufficient, she says. But you need to amp that up and reapply more frequently if you're spending time outdoors, because the reflection of the sun off snow or ice can increase your exposure. "Here in Alberta, you can still get a significant sunburn skiing in the winter, especially if you're very fair-skinned," adds Dr. Parsons. 

Look for superstar ingredients

Certain skincare ingredients can be particularly helpful during the cold season. Dr. Carroll recommends looking for a serum, moisturizer or mask that contains hyaluronic acid, a molecule that acts like a moisture magnet and is known to attract and hold up to a thousand times its weight in water. Its lightweight texture makes it a great option for oily types too. Another wintertime wonder? Ceramides, which are lipids (or fats) that help skin lock moisture in. "They're very helpful in repairing the skin barrier and keeping it intact," says Dr. Carroll. 

Improve your environment

You can't change the wicked weather outside, but you can control your indoor situation. "One of the best things you can do is put a humidifier in your bedroom, or your office if it's an enclosed space," says Dr. Carroll. Even if your home has a whole-house humidification system, Dr. Carroll recommends adding a physical machine to whichever room you spend most of your time in, seeing that built-ins typically aren't enough to keep up with the seasonal dryness.  (Check out our guide for how to choose the right humidifier for you.)

Drink up — within reason

One of the top myths both Dr. Parsons and Dr. Carroll are ready to bust? That dry skin means you need to start chugging water. "When you drink water, that water doesn't all of a sudden show up in your stratum corneum," says Dr. Carroll. Instead, she recommends focusing on things that actually touch your skin: the humidity of the air around you and the skincare products you use. Of course, drinking water is important for your overall health, but overdoing it won't get you far. "Once you've hydrated yourself to the point of normal, there haven't been any really good studies that show that drinking more water actually helps — all you do is pee it out," says Dr. Parsons.

Call on the pros

Have a big event coming up (calling all winter brides!) or simply want to level up your glow game? There are two different in-office procedures you can consider, says Dr. Carroll. The first and more affordable option is an oxygen facial, where a pressurized stream of oxygen is used to push active ingredients such as hyaluronic acid into the superficial layer of your skin. It will set you back about $150 to $200, and the dewy results stick around for two to three days. For a plump that lasts one to nine months, ask your derm for hyaluronic acid skin boosters (brand names include Restylane Skinboosters, Juvederm Volite, Teoysal Redensity 1). The treatment, which costs around $1,500 for three sessions, involves microinjections of hyaluronic acid into the skin's dermis layer. Unlike traditional filler, this injectable has a more malleable consistency, so it won't alter the dimensions of your face (Dr. Carroll compares the filler used to reshape chins to a gummy-bear consistency, whereas skin boosters are closer to a thick serum). "It's not a volumizer, but more about skin quality and texture," says Dr. Carroll. "If your skin is dehydrated and lacklustre, these treatments will improve your glow — that X-factor."

Be proactive

Staying one step ahead of your skin's needs is key to getting through the seasons, especially if you suffer from conditions that tend to worsen in the winter, such as eczema and rosacea. "It's harder to fix something than it is to prevent something," says Dr. Carroll. "Putting in your winter skincare routine early and ahead of the game before you start having problems is always better." Similarly, general wellness will help keep your skin in check, says Dr. Parsons. "Get enough sleep, exercise, not too much sun — and have fun."

Winter skincare picks

The soothing suds

Hate that tight-skin sensation when you get out of the shower? This oil-based wash foams up for a nice clean feeling, while its coconut and sunflower esters leave your skin feeling soft, not squeaky. Bonus: It packs barrier-repairing vitamin B3 for long-term gains. 

Bioderma Atoderm Shower Oil, $19.90, Shoppers Drug Mart

The derm-approved pick

The Canadian Dermatology Association gives this foam-free cleanser a thumbs up for its gentle formula loaded with ceramides and hyaluronic acid. (Tip: We love using it to break down mascara, too.) 

Cerave Hydrating Cleanser, $17.99, Shoppers Drug Mart

The go-to treatment

Those who suffer from eczema are likely already familiar with colloidal oatmeal, but its protective properties don't need to be reserved for severe skin conditions. This unscented lotion features the tried-and-true ingredient, helping to deliver non-greasy hydration that lasts up to 24 hours. 

Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion, $9.97, Amazon

The feather-light face cream

Worried about clogging your pores with heavy creams this winter? This fragrance-free cream takes on a liquid form as you blend it, leaving a lightweight feel as your skin drinks in its hyaluronic acid, peptides and vitamin B3. 

Olay Regenerist Whip Face Moisturizer Fragrance-Free, $38.98, Walmart

The souped-up sunscreen

With its broad-spectrum SPF 40 coverage, this sunscreen helps defend against both ultraviolet A and B rays, along with antioxidants to help protect skin from pollution too. Plus, its easy-to-blend formula makes it a no-brainer to apply under makeup every day.

Shiseido Urban Environment UV Protection Cream SPF 40, $46, Sephora

The hyaluronic acid helper

Another skin-saver with the Canadian Dermatology Association's seal of approval? This blend of thermal water (which makes up 89 percent of the formula, hence the product's name) and hyaluronic acid, which can be layered under moisturizer to help quench parched skin, quick — without any potentially irritating fragrances, alcohols or parabens. 

Vichy Mineral 89 Fortifying and Hydrating Daily Skin Booster, $51.99, well.ca

The ceramide solution

It's been almost 30 years since these now-iconic ampoules first hit the market, and they continue to be widely loved for their single-use format (no preservatives needed) and concentrated dose of skin-strengthening ceramides.

Advanced Ceramide Capsules, $99 for 60, Elizabeth Arden


Caitlin Kenny is a Toronto-based writer and editor with 10 years of experience covering beauty, style and health across Canada's top media outlets. Follow her on Instagram @caitlinken_insta

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