One walk down a pharmacy aisle is all you need to tell you that the world of moisturizers is not a simple one. What used to be lotions and hand-softeners dominated by a few brands in our grandmother's day has morphed into dozens of products, each promising more than the other, each one a tangle of ingredients -- some of them unpronounceable.
Too bad, because during a winter such as this one, our red, dry and flaky skin screams for something smooth and soothing. But is a little hand cream all we really need? When it comes to something called winter skin, is there really such a thing?
"Your skin does change like the seasons," says Dr. Charles Lynde, a dermatologist and CEO of Lynderm Research in Markham, Ontario. An expert in winter itch, Dr. Lynde says that people who may have normal skin throughout the year can experience winter skin. "Particularly in Canada because of the cold and because of our being cooped up in houses and offices where it is too hot."
Just as a piece of good wood furniture will dry out if you don't oil it, our skin needs a certain amount of humidity during winter months. Those over the age of 60 are particularly susceptible to dry itchy skin because their glands no longer produce enough oil. "Less frequent baths and showers is useful advice," he says. "But you also could benefit from an emollient and a humidifier."
Dr. Lynde rejects the commonly-held view that winter skin is a women's problem -- something that women's magazines are fond of promoting. Kids and men get it as well. And while there's nothing more calming in winter than a long soak in a hot bath, Dr. Lynde says don't do it if you want to help your skin: "Cut the temperature, make your bath or shower a short one, blot yourself with a towel but leave some moisture on your skin, then quickly apply that emollient."
Fine, but has he seen those shelves stocked with a zillion lotions? Which one?
Finding the right one is actually hit and miss, and a lot just depends on what feels good. But Dr. Lynde also stresses that many popular brands like those made by Neutrogena, La Roche-Posay, CeraVe, Johnson & Johnson, and L'Oreal can be trusted because their products are based on good science. Common ingredients in moisturizers include paraffin, lanolin, glycerin, urea, AHA and propylene glycol. A new addition and something to look for? Ceramides. "They are like the mortar between the bricks in skin cells."
Dr. Lynde does not say that "natural" is best. For instance, he says that something as natural as olive oil can disrupt the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the epidermis. He cautions his patients that some natural products are oversold. "You may see a small firm in a small town somewhere that puts no research dollars into their product but promotes it as natural." Trust the research, he says, and stay away from products -- natural or not -- that have fragrances or added chemicals.
Winter skin can be managed, then, but ordinary winter skin shouldn't be confused with eczema -- a chronic skin condition in which the skin is inflamed, dry, cracked, red, itchy and similar in appearance to winter skin. Also known as dermatitis, it is triggered by various allergens and irritants, one of which may be cold weather and dry air. According to dermatology.ca there are different types of eczema -- one is the result of contact with a substance such as metal or another allergenic substance, another is a hereditary version.
Managing your triggers is the key to control, but choosing the right skincare product can be tricky. Skinfix, a company with several over-the-counter products for eczema relief, advises people who are eczema-prone or whose skin is irritated to watch out for products containing alcohol or perfume, AHAs, lactic acid, menthol, eucalyptus, paragons, sulfates, seed scrubs and phthalates.
Disorders of the skin can be painful, both physically and psychologically, and not every condition can be soothed by moisturizers. For example, over-the-counter products may be worth trying but they may not work for advanced cases of eczema, says Dr. Lynde. "If you have a full-blown case of it with red and scaly skin, best to see a doctor who may prescribe a topical steroid to kickstart the healing."
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