Unpredictable weather, especially dry air and freezing temps, can wreak havoc on your skin. “Our skin has natural mechanisms to maintain healthy barrier function and hydration, but those are put to the test during extreme weather in the winter,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. These seasonal stressors challenge the skin’s ability to maintain its own state of health, resulting in that dry, tight, flaky, and even itchy feeling. Ick.
But spring is right around the corner, which means relief is in sight. It also means that bare legs and sleeveless tanks are in your future. So if you’re suffering from dry skin, we've got you covered. Here are a few easy tips from top derms.
1. Exfoliate first.
Before you buy 27 different moisturizers for every body part, stop for a second. The first thing you need to do is gently exfoliate dry skin. “The dry, dead flakes are not going to allow any moisturizer to get in, so if you want to increase the skin’s moisture and hydration, you need to make sure there’s no impediment,” says Neal Schultz, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and founder of BeautyRX Skincare.
Schultz recommends a chemical exfoliator over a physical one (the kind with beads or granules). If the word “chemical” freaks you out, don’t panic. “Chemical” just refers to the active acids (alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, or retinoids) that eat away the dead skin cells in a Pac-Man fashion, and these can be found in “natural” forms, such as the lactic acid in soured milk.
For dry skin, the best vehicle for a chemical exfoliator is a cream or lotion, which does double duty by exfoliating and moisturizing. Schultz suggests one with no more than 10 percent glycolic acid, “the gold standard” for effective exfoliation. We love: BeautyRX Daily Exfoliating Body Therapy Lotion, which contains 10 percent glycolic acid (true story: We didn't realize how well this worked until we ran out), or C.O. Bigelow Derma Remedy Intense Dry Skin Body Lotion, which contains 6 percent lactic acid.
2. Rehydrate right.
When your skin is dry (particularly in dry climates, during low-humidity winter weather, or even on an airplane), it's in need of water—not oil. So next, you need to replenish the water content, then lock it in with oil. How the heck do you do that? Start by understanding the different kinds of moisturizers.
“There are three classes of moisturizing ingredients: humectants, which attract additional water; emollients, which seal the cracks between cells; and occlusives, which lock moisture in as an absolute stop,” Schultz explains. He recommends a moisturizer that contains humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid, which can hold up to 1,000 times its own weight in water. For flakes, Zeichner recommends emollient rich products that contain oils like argan oil, shea butter, and ceramides like Aveeno Skin Relief Moisture Repair Cream or Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Lotion.
Once you've replaced the water content, there's an optional second step. If you're dealing with cracked skin, reach for an emollient-rich product. Look for natural lipids, like argan oil, shea butter, and ceramides, on the label . Or you can apply a protective barrier with an occlusive (think: greasy ointments like the classics Vaseline and Aquaphor) to lock in moisture.
3. Try for twice a day.
Ideally, you’d moisturize twice a day, but if that sounds ambitious (because seriously, who’s got time for that?), skip the morning. Your body undergoes normal circadian rhythms, patterns that occur morning and night, and your skin's hydration level dips while you sleep, Zeichner says. “So one trick is to keep a moisturizer next to your bedside to make it easy to hydrate before bed,” he says. Plus, moisturizing is a much more relaxing (and beneficial) bedtime ritual than scrolling through your phone.
4. But don't skip after a shower.
We’ll let it slide if you don't lotion up in the morning, but you should never skip moisturizing immediately after a shower or bath. “That’s when your skin’s moisture content is highest," Schultz says. The prime time: within five minutes of getting out. Pat (don't rub) skin dry then apply lotion or cream generously until absorbed. Showering and moisturizing before bed will earn you bonus smooth skin points.
5. Go easy on the heat.
With that said, make sure your shower routine is a smart one. Showering too often can further exacerbate a dry skin issue. “Especially in the winter, we may enjoy long hot showers, but our skin does not,” Zeichner says. “Hot water, especially when exposed over long periods of time, can strip skin of what it needs to keep itself healthy." He recommends opting for showers over baths, keeping them short (10 minutes or less), and using lukewarm water (about the temperature of a heated swimming pool).
6. Step away from the soap.
The one place that it’s totally acceptable—in fact, it’s advised—to be lazy: the shower! Make it quicker and easier by ditching the suds, which can be extra drying in the winter. “You actually do not need soap on your entire body," Schultz says. "Soap removes the precious oils your skin is making to maintain its health."
He recommends using soap as needed on your face, underarms, and personal areas, but the rest of your body (like your arms, legs, and stomach) likely doesn't need it every day, especially if you're clean but just sweaty after a workout. "Sweat is just water and salt that comes off with a spray of water," Schultz says. So simply rinse and jump out to save time in the locker room. If you really have a need to feel clean, Zeichner recommends a soap-free gentle cleanser to remove dirt and oil in a gentle way such as a hydating body wash like Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash.
7. Try a DIY.
- Pour one half gallon of vitamin D milk into warm bath water (the lactic acid will exfoliate, while vitamins A and D soften skin).
- Fill a fabric satchel or pouch with loose chamomile tea and tie it up tight (or use 5-10 tea bags). Let that soak in the water—it’s like a big tea bag.
- If you're feeling extra fancy, float a few flowers like gardenias or roses on the surface. The steam will bring out the scent.
- Slather your skin with your favorite moisturizer afterward.