How to protect your skin against the elements this winter

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Fleur Fruzza
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Contending with freezing temperatures and cranking up the heating during winter can wreak havoc on your skin. Here’s how to protect it…

There’s no getting around it: it’s cold outside – very cold. Which means that, yes, your gloves have come out of hiding and you can’t even fathom stepping outside without your trusty woolly scarf. 

But what are you doing to protect your face? 

While we all know that it’s essential to slather summer skin with SPF, winter is a lesser-known adversary thanks to its mercurial yo-yo of bitterly cold temperatures and ramped-up central heating. 

Temperatures plummeted to -3.1C in some parts of the UK this week, a chilly 33.9 degrees lower than body temperature which hovers around 37°C. Before we’ve had a chance to say ‘brrrr’ through chattering teeth, winter has sucked the life out of our skin. 

“The cold reduces water content at the skin’s surface,” says Dr Stefanie Williams, medical director at European Dermatology London, which explains the dry, scaly skin that winter so kindly bestows on us. “Cold winds also increase the evaporation of moisture leading to more dryness and cracking.” 

The outcome is red, sensitive skin and is the reason why many a wind-battered sea captain of yesteryear was described as ‘ruddy cheeked’. Then comes winter’s gift of flaking – chapped lips, anyone? 

“With healthy skin, dead cells shed individually, however when skin is dry they have difficulty detaching and come off in visible patches,” explains Dr Williams.

The irony is, our quest for winter warmth perpetuates the problem. Hot baths or showers “melt away the natural protective oils in the skin, while central heating sucks moisture from the air,” says Dr Nick Lowe, president of the British Cosmetic Dermatology Group

This explains why you may want to stop cosying up next to that roaring log fire too. Research from Seoul National University in South Korea found that radiant heat, such as that from a radiator or fire, causes skin damage in a similar way to sun exposure. The culprit is infrared radiation (IR). 

“Studies have shown that just like UV light, IR generates free radicals in the skin as well as inducing renegade MMP1 enzymes which attack healthy cells and break down collagen,” explains Dr Mike Bell, skincare scientific advisor for Boots. Scientists overseas are already rallying to our skin’s defence, creating the IR version of an SPF.

So what can we do about it?

The ultimate winter skincare arsenal:

South Korea’s Coréana Cosmetics has launched the world’s first IR filter in their Lavida Vital Recovery BB Pact compact, and brands here are racing to formulate something similar. In the meantime, research from SkinCeuticals shows that using an anti-oxidant serum (such as their C E Ferulic, £129, or Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum, £49, Aesop) is an effective way of protecting against IR-induced free radicals, as well as the inflammation caused by sensitive, dry skin.

While temperature extremes are the bad guys in Winter Skin: The Movie, they pale in comparison to the ultimate villain: switching rapidly between extreme climates. “Coming in from the cold, which constricts capillaries, to an overly heated room suddenly increases blood flow, giving rise to more than just rosy cheeks,” warns Dr Lowe. “Blood vessels which repeatedly and quickly expand become permanently enlarged over time. This leads to broken capillaries or thread veins which become visible at the skin’s surface.” 

Swapping between temperatures also results in a vicious cycle of inflammation and free radicals (those rogue molecules that disrupt your healthy skin cells) which damage collagen and skin’s elastin. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom; boosting skin’s strength internally will help mop up free radicals as well as improve micro-circulation. Scientists at the University of South Florida recently discovered that Pycnogenol – an antioxidant supplement containing grape seed extract found in health stores – helped prevent the formation of broken capillaries. But the easiest way to tackle winter skin involves a simple moisturiser switch.

“A richer day cream with humectants like glycerine or sodium hyaluronate will trap moisture in the skin,” advises Dr Lowe. Try Super Charged SPF15 Day Cream, £19, Dr Nick Lowe, which contains moisture-locking shea butter, or the mineral-rich Vita Mineral Emollient Rescue Cream, £27, REN. 

“Also invest in a repairing night cream bolstered with lipids (such as avocado oil and oleic acid) to rebuild the skin’s barrier,” he suggests. 

Try Avocado Pear Nourishing Night Cream, £34.99, Antipodes.

It is also highly advisable to wash skin with warm – not hot – water and avoid soaps that strip away oils. Oat-based additions in your ablution routine (such as Aveeno’s Bath and Shower Oil, £9.89) will calm sensitive, irritated skin and your face will appreciate a moisturising cleanser such as Tata Harper’s Nourishing Oil Cleanser, £68. 

As with life, timing is everything – apply moisturiser straight after washing to lock in moisture. 

So, while we can’t control the erratic temperatures of a British winter, we aren’t defenceless against the elements. Moisturise religiously and you won’t need to hide behind the scarf we promise…

Main Image: Ren Qingtao