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According to the Canadian Sensitive Skin Needs Survey, an online survey conducted by Aveeno Canada and Leger, 70 per cent of those with sensitive skin saw a worsening of symptoms in dry climates.AndreiDavid/Getty Images

Our skin hates the cold weather. The chilly winds, drop in humidity and lower temps draw moisture away from the skin and strip it of its natural oils, leading to dry, flaky and itchy results. But it’s a misconception that cold weather is the sole cause of our winter skin woes. Indoor air, particularly if the heat is cranked up, is also a culprit. Dry air wants nothing more than to suck moisture out of any available source – including from your skin.

Taking hot baths, sitting in front of a fire and using heating pads further exacerbate the problem. While all feel cozy, the heat strips away moisture and leaves the skin parched.

And, dry skin isn’t just unsightly and annoying. It can cause flare-ups of chronic conditions such as rosacea and eczema. In fact, according to the Canadian Sensitive Skin Needs Survey, an online survey conducted by Aveeno Canada and Leger, 70 per cent of those with sensitive skin saw a worsening of symptoms in dry climates.

It’s all about the skin barrier, the upper layer of the epidermis. When that top layer of skin is compromised from dryness it’s worse at protecting against the harsh cold weather. And, studies have shown that the top layer of the skin holds less water in low-humidity environments, like ours. One 2015 study found that environments with low humidity and low temperatures have negative effects on the skin barrier and can lead to dermatitis.

“Dry skin makes your skin barrier worse and a worsened skin barrier retains less moisture,” explains Dr. Monica Li, dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia. “It’s a vicious cycle that has to be broken in order to restore the skin.”

There are many factors that can contribute to damage to your skin barrier: Extreme weather, stress, poor diet, frequent hand washing and overexfoliating can all be culprits. But scratching is one of the worst since it’s hard to stop doing when skin gets dry. According to Dr. Julia Carroll, a dermatologist and co-founder of Compass Dermatology in Toronto, itchy, dry skin can physically damage the skin barrier, making it more susceptible to infections.

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Other symptoms of a damaged skin barrier include acne, rough patches, sensitivity and stinging, especially when skin-care products are applied. And, for racialized people, Carroll says that inflammation resulting from dryness can cause pigment cells in the skin to “dump out their pigment,” leading to dark patches even when the dryness has resolved. “You may still have that darker patch that takes a while – sometimes months – to fade.”

Luckily, dry winter skin is preventable and fixable. Here are five tips on how to rescue your dry skin.

Make up for lost moisture

It’s impossible to live without keeping the heating on during the winter. So, both Li and Carroll suggest replenishing your indoor air’s moisture by adding humidifiers to your space – especially in places such as bedrooms and home offices, where a lot of time is spent.

Li says to rehydrate your skin inside and out. While adding humidifiers will take care of the outside, making sure you drink eight glasses of water a day will really help retain moisture. And, use hydrating skin-care products to replenish lost moisture. In the wintertime, Li says to look for creams or balms that have a thicker consistency for more hydration.

Switch up your shower routine

Taking a long, hot shower can warm you up after a chilly day, but it will strip your skin of all its natural oils and moisture. Making a few crucial changes will help you avoid your skin drying out.

First of all, lower the heat of the water. And, shorten your time in the bathroom – showers shouldn’t last more than 10 minutes, says Li. Next, don’t work up a thick lather; it will “remove too much oil,” she explains. “Just lather enough that you get the visible dirt and the excess oil off.” When you get out of the shower, don’t vigorously towel off. Instead, Li says to blot the skin gently.

Then, take a look at what’s on your shelf. Carroll recommends swapping your body wash for something you’d use on your face. “The ones for the body are a bit more plain, but the ones for the face have options like foaming and hydrating,” she says. Plus, they’re generally topped up with moisturizing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid.

Finally, moisturize immediately when you get out of the shower. This will replenish any lost hydration from the shower as soon as possible.

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Avoid irritants

The winter weather also means wearing fabrics that can irritate the skin, such as wool. Avoid itchy sweaters, or wear a cotton or silk undershirt, to reduce direct contact with the scratchy material. Itchy sweaters mean more scratching, “which leads to more dryness and on and on,” Li says.

On that note, stay away from overly scented products – fragrant cleansers, moisturizers, detergents and soaps can irritate the skin, which can be a source of contact dermatitis, or a rash caused by contact with an allergen or another substance, says Li.

Stay away from heat

That means reducing the use of heated blankets, hot-water bottles and heating pads since direct contact with heat can dry out the skin and lead to a condition called erythema, or redness of the skin, which is caused by an increased blood flow to the area, Li explains.

Look for these four key ingredients when shopping for products

Hyaluronic acid is a popular ingredient found in many moisturizers. It’s a humectant, a substance that retains moisture. In fact, hyaluronic acid is one of the most powerful moisturizers in skin care – it can bind up to a thousand times its weight in water.

Ceramides are the fats and lipids found in skin cells that make up a large part of the skin barrier. Li says they’re like the “bricks and mortar of the skin” and keep the structure intact, while keeping out allergens and microbes. Using products that replenish your skin’s ceramide reserves will also make your skin barrier healthier.

Colloidal oatmeal is made of ground-up oats that have been mixed into skin-care products. According to Carroll, colloidal oatmeal works by binding to the skin and locking in moisture, which helps to soothe irritation and soften the skin.

Petrolatum is an occlusive, which seals in moisture. Using it as the final step in your nighttime routine to lock in the moisture from all your other products will keep it all in the skin – instead of having it sucked out by the dry air, says Carroll.

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One thing to note: Don’t use petrolatum on acne-prone skin since it can seal in sebum, bacteria and dirt in pores, which causes blemishes.

Try these products, all of which contain the key ingredients mentioned above:

Aveeno Restorative Skin Therapy Repairing Cream contains oats to provide itch relief on cold and dry days. Bonus: It’s fragrance-free so it won’t further irritate your epidermis.

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First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream Intense Hydration is a heavy cream with colloidal oatmeal to relieve itchiness. It also contains ceramides and is scent-free.

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser is a gentle face cleanser that can be used anywhere on the body. It contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid to add moisture while restoring the skin barrier.

Vaseline Original Petroleum Jelly is a classic skin care must-have since it’s chock-full of petrolatum, which locks in moisture on even the driest of surfaces.

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