‘Tis the season...to change up your skincare.

By Hana Hong
November 02, 2020
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Credit: Getty Images

It may come across a bit cliché to say that your wardrobe isn’t the only thing you should be switching come winter—but hey, that doesn’t make it any less true. Those lightweight gel moisturizers and charcoal cleansers that worked just fine in September might not cut it come December. As colder temperatures approach, dry air, frigid winds, and constant exposure to indoor heaters suck the moisture from your skin and strip it of oils essential for healthy skin barrier function. These elemental conditions can also spark skin sensitivity, redness, and irritation. Bottom line: A regimen shakeup is due.

But don’t go planning an entire overhaul just yet. All you might need is a few simple swaps and additions, according to Doris Day, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York. “Take a look at how your skin changes and adjust or switch out the products accordingly," she advises. "In general, you need to be careful to use more gentle cleansers and richer moisturizers.” To keep skin happy and hydrated—and flaky freakouts far away—follow these dermatologist-recommended skincare switcharoos to execute a seamless transition. 

While foaming, bubbly cleansers are a whole lot of fun to apply on your face, they're not doing your skin any favors, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Foaming or salicylic acid-based cleansers are great at removing dirt and oil, but contain sulfates that can be more drying than other types of cleansers. Cleansing creams, balms, and oils can effectively wash the skin while keeping the skin hydrated and not disrupting the skin barrier.”

If you suffer from pimples, tread lightly with acne-focused skincare rooted in salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. These harsh ingredients can exacerbate dry skin when used in excess. If you are a regular user, use those products in tandem with pH-optimized skincare that can help regulate skin barriers thrown off-balance.?

The benefits of exfoliation—when done right—are no secret. Gentle (I repeat, gentle) exfoliation can help remove dead skin cells accumulated from dry winter air, leaving the skin looking more glowy and helping your post-cleaning moisturizer absorb better, according to Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

That being said, don’t overdo it! “We live in a society of over-exfoliators,” says Dr. Zeichner. “While exfoliating can help brighten the skin by removing dead cells, overdoing it can disrupt the outer skin layer, leading to dryness and irritation. Exfoliate once per week, and advance to twice weekly if you can tolerate it.”

While winter weather might sound like the optimal time for a long, hot bath, try to resist the urge. According to Dr. King, prolonged contact with hot water can strip the skin of its natural moisture, leaving you even drier than you were before. “Take brief lukewarm showers no more than once per day,” she says. And immediately after the shower, while your skin is damp, apply rich moisturizers to lock in hydration. You should use enough to leave the skin feeling well hydrated, which means you may need to apply more than you do in summer months.”?

If you find that your skin is flaking more than usual, try dry brushing, a ritual that involves rubbing your skin with a brush in a light, circular motion. The mechanical action can work wonders for exfoliating dry winter skin and promoting lymphatic drainage. Plus, it’s one heck of a self-massage.??

If you take away one thing from this article, it’s this: The cardinal rule of wintertime skincare is keeping skin hydrated. A lighter lotion may have been enough to satisfy your skin during the dog days of summer, but that's not an extended guarantee into colder weather. “While humectants may have been sufficient to keep the skin hydrated during humid months, emollients and occlusives will be more important during low-humidity conditions,” says Dr. King.?

But first, let’s back that up a bit. In case you’re not aware, humectants (i.e., hyaluronic acid and glycerin) are low molecular weight substances that extract water from the air and into the skin. Emollients usually come in the form of creams and lotions that help in skin barrier function. And occlusives are oils and waxes that form a layer on the skin and physically block water from escaping. According to Dr. King, an ideal winter moisturizer contains all three components. But don’t worry—these heavier moisturizers can still be non-comedogenic (read: they won’t break you out).?

Not to keep comparing skincare to clothing, but it’s really the best metaphor here. Think of your skincare application like outerwear for your skin: Just like you need to layer your clothing to keep your body warm in the cooler months, your skin needs the same to prevent overdrying. “Layering allows you to address multiple skin concerns with different products at the same time,” says Dr. Zeichner. If you need a quick explainer on how to layer skincare, a good rule of thumb is to layer lightest to heaviest (i.e., watery toner first, serum second, and moisturizer third).

According to Dr. King, some hot ingredients you should look out for in the cold are ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, bakuchiol, and botanical oils. When used in conjunction, they can soothe inflammation, restore hydration, and strengthen the skin barrier. And don’t forget the SPF, which yes, you do need during winter. “Even incidental sunlight exposure adds up over a lifetime,” says Dr. Zeichner. “While the effect of the sun may be stronger over the summer, you are not immune from potential UV damage during the winter. In fact, UV light reflects off of snow so you can get a bad sunburn even in the dead of winter.”

Not that we needed any excuse to apply a face mask, but if you haven’t started yet, winter is the best time to do it. The world of skincare masks is pretty extensive, but don’t sleep—or do—on overnight masks. Designed to be the final step of your nighttime skin regimen, overnight masks help lock in all those serums, creams, and oils that were applied before. “Your skin undergoes circadian rhythms,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Skin hydration levels start to decline in the afternoon and continue overnight, so p.m. masking is extremely helpful to keep the skin hydrated.” If you are sleeping in a room with particularly dry heat, pair your overnight mask with a bedside humidifier to further seal in moisture.??

Note: This is also a great opportunity to incorporate more targeted treatments to your skin. For example, those with eczema may benefit from ingredients like ceramides and aloe, while those seeking anti-aging benefits may choose a night mask infused with retinol or bakuchiol.

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