01/03/2012 02:22 EST | Updated 03/04/2012 05:12 EST

Safeguarding skin: Sunscreen, moisturizers key during winter months

TORONTO - Bundling up with layers of clothing to stave off the winter chill isn't the only protection needed in a cold climate.

There may be fewer daylight hours, but safeguarding the skin remains crucial as the temperature nosedives — especially in the face of other elements that can take a toll in biting, wintry conditions.

"Many Canadians embrace our winter and spend a lot of time outdoors in sports and other activities, and so we expose ourselves willingly to environments that are not very hospitable to the surface of our skin," said Dr. Gordon Searles, president-elect of the Canadian Dermatology Association.

While there isn't the same degree of intensity from the sun during winter, one added element to contend with are the rays reflecting off snow and other surfaces.

"If you're at high altitude, the air is thinner and there's a lot more energy of the sun that gets through," said Searles, a professor of dermatology and medicine at the University of Alberta.

"We've seen that with people who find themselves getting a sunburn after they've been on the slopes, not realizing that when they're at the higher altitude and (with) the reflection of the snow, they're getting a fair amount of sun."

Searles said he typically recommends individuals wear at least an SPF level 30 sunscreen due to the issue of reflectance.

"In the summer, people tend to get used to putting on their sunscreen as part of their routine," he said. "In the winter months, when we're all bundled up, we tend to forget that our hands and face are still exposed, and so they need to be protected all year-round."

Searles said the biggest challenge is moisturization.

Much of the air we get — particularly in the west — comes from the Arctic, so most of the moisture gets scrubbed out, he noted. As a result, Searles said the humidity in the air is actually much lower than people anticipate. But the skin requires a humid environment to stay in optimal shape.

"About 40 per cent humidity is the minimum that one would need, and if the air that you're in is much less than that, you actually lose water from your skin into the environment," Searles said from Edmonton.

"That leads to drying out and cracking of the skin at the top levels. And if that's allowed to continue without repair, then the skin will be damaged."

Searles said wind exposure can have a particularly drying effect on the face, and those who experience wind burn can have chapped skin due to a loss of moisture.

"Any moisturizer you can apply before going outdoors can help lock in that moisture that's in that skin so it can retard or slow down the loss of water out of the skin," said Searles.

The outer portion of the skin does not get its moisture from what you drink, so while maintaining hydration has a lot of other health benefits, moisture comes from external sources, like water from a bath or shower, he noted.

"Once we have the water in the skin, we need to take measures to allow the moisture to stay in the skin and not be lost," Searles said. "Your body naturally does that because it has certain oils and byproducts that come from your oil glands that help your body hold onto moisture, but those are severely tested during the winter months because of the dryness of the air."

Moisturizing once daily is usually all that's required, but areas of the body used more frequently, like hands, may need additional applications, Searles said.

Shea butter or body balms can help provide a high concentration of moisture to the skin, said Lynne Ryan, national makeup artist for Murale. She also suggests adding a bit of bath oil to the water at bath time for an added dose of richness and texture to the skin.

An alcohol-free toner is also key, she said.

"It's actually adding balance to the skin, helps tighten the pores, keeps and locks in the moisture throughout the winter season."

And while your focus may be on the face, don't neglect the lips and hands which can also get quite dry, Ryan noted. She recommends keeping a hand cream and lip moisturizer at the ready.

For snowbirds flocking south or sunseekers longing for a brief respite from cold weather, Searles said it will typically take a day or two for skin to get acclimatized to sunnier conditions.

While 91 per cent of all travellers to warm or sunny destinations say sun protection is important while vacationing, most don't always take measures to protect themselves, according to a survey conducted on behalf of the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance. The Leger Marketing poll found 44 per cent blamed their lack of protection — like wearing sunscreen, a hat or UV protective clothing — on forgetfulness.

Sun worshippers need to be on the lookout for a treatable, pre-cancerous skin condition called actinic keratosis, which is strongly linked to UV exposure and sun damage.

"The classical presentation of this type of sun damage is a small pink spot that is slightly rough or sandy or scaly, and it comes and goes. But usually when it comes and goes it's in the same spot," said Searles.

"It's like a little spot of what looks to you like dry skin or eczema that comes and goes, and it's usually in an area where you've had a lot of sun."

Searles said spots may also resemble freckles or brown patches which may or may not be scaly but also linger in the same area for long periods of time.

Since sun is the main culprit in generating lesions, Searles advises against prolonged exposure to intense sun at midday and recommends coverage in the form of a hat and shirt. Sunscreen should be used in areas that are always exposed, he noted.

Ultimately, Searles said the skin is a "remarkably resilient structure" which doesn't require a lot of work or effort to protect.

"Once you've done the protection, you can get on with whatever it is that you want to do. If you take good care of your skin, it will take good care of you."