I'm no stranger to dry, itchy, irritated skin. We know this. But dear GOD, winter has a lot to answer for. What with the harsh ice-cold wind that seems to start up just as I leave the house, to the cranked up office central heating and stuffy dry air, to boiling hot showers (to make up for the freezing house) and even more heating (to warm up again post-boiling shower), my skin can't catch a break. A sore scalp, scaly legs, cracked hands and a prickly face that feels like it's falling off; add to that the signature winter flyaway hair that makes an annual appearance and it's fair to say I'm not looking or feeling my best.
"Our skin is cleverly designed to retain water, keeping it supple and pliant," says dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. "However, the winter environment presents a real challenge: outdoors, cold air can’t hold moisture, resulting in low humidity. Indoors, the same things happen due to the blasting central heating. This widespread lack of moisture in the air results in increased water evaporation from our skin, and when this happens the skin starts to malfunction. We need a certain minimum water content in the outermost layer, the stratum corneum to ensure the barrier works properly. When skin is parched, cracks appear, cells clump and pile up into flakes and a vicious cycle begins as the skin is now even less capable of holding on to that all important moisture. The result? Dull, scaly, itchy skin."
Yes, winter plays havoc with the skin whether you're sensitive or not - but if you are on the easily-irritated side, it's pure hell. "Sensitivity tends to go hand in hand with thin, dry skin where barrier function is often less robust. This means that changes in the environment are much harder to compensate for," explains Dr Bunting.
Sadly, everything is against you - so you need to make some adjustments. Dr Bunting's advice is to go for shorter, tepid showers rather than hot baths; avoid foaming products; avoid over-exfoliation and seek moisturisers that support the skin barrier function.
Be discerning with your products, too - Dr Bunting shares her top tips for finding winter-friendly ingredients:
- Look for anti-inflammatory agents like allantoin and feverfew.
- Niacinamide is a great anti-ageing ingredient that helps with uneven skin-tone but also increases ceramide production, supporting skin barrier function.
- AHAs are often harder to tolerate in sensitive skin – but lactic acid is often the exception, as it has also got humectant properties, helping hydrate as well as gently exfoliate.
Having tested some products before Christmas that left my skin feeling like sandpaper, this winter has been even tougher to get to grips with, but these five favourites have slowly got me back to my best. I've had a few hiccups along the way where I've had to grab the previously raved about Clarins Skin Repair Concentrate in desperation but I'm through the rough patch (literally) thanks to these miracle workers. Reevaluate your skincare and make sure you've got the best defence going...