Being a conscientious hand washer almost guarantees dry skin. Cold weather does, too. So what’s the best way to stay supple and smooth despite good hygiene and the elements?
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“If you consistently moisturize, then your skin should be OK,” says dermatologist Alejandra Estemalik, MD. “Especially if you have atopic dermatitis or eczema, the consistent use of moisturizer will reduce symptoms, symptom frequency and disease flares.”
But with thousands (or possibly millions?) of skincare products promising your best skin ever, which one is right for you? Dr. Estemalik does a deep dive into moisturizers: how to choose the best moisturizer for dry skin, how to apply it and other ways to love the skin you’re in.
What causes dry skin?
While everyone’s skin is different, we all have some common enemies:
Low humidity in the air — more common during winter — can dry out your skin. “Skin is drier and therefore more sensitive during colder months,” notes Dr. Estemalik. “Summer sun decreases inflammation, so you’re less dry and itchy when it’s warm.”
A shower a day — the staple of American life — may actually too often. According to the American Academy of Dermatology a bath every other day may be sufficient for children. “For adults, the recommendation depends on your activity level, if you are not that active it’s okay to cut a couple showers a week” says Dr. Estemalik.
Over-showering is counterproductive: Water strips the skin of its protective barrier — the natural oils that keep irritants out and hydration in. And scalding hot showers worsen the situation by evaporating even more moisture from the skin.
“Your skin barrier can eventually develop little micro irritations, which accumulate over days and months. This leads to dry, cracked skin that’s more likely to develop rashes and skin infections,” Dr. Estemalik says.
“Your skin becomes more vulnerable to potential allergens, irritants and pathogens, including viruses and bacteria like staphylococcus. That’s also why over-washing makes kids with eczema more prone to warts and viral skin infections,” she adds.
Too much perfume
All those oh-so-sweet-smelling perfumes in your lotion for dry skin? They’re called fragrances, and Dr. Estemalik says their makers have duped you.
“It’s so hard to convince my patients about this, but when you apply a fragrance product on your skin, especially if you have sensitive skin, it eventually causes inflammation because it’s a skin allergen. And inflammation leads to flakiness and itchiness.”
Plant-derived, “all natural” and “organic”, botanicals are thought to be better for your skin because they’re found in nature. But as Dr. Estemalik notes, so is poison ivy. “Fragrance is like sugar. We all crave it but it’s bad for our skin.”
Because ingredient lists are often miles-long and American manufacturers aren’t required to tell all, it can be hard to know if your favorite moisturizer contains allergenic fragrances or botanicals. But Dr. Estemalik says to watch out for ingredients such as:
- Fragrance mix.
- Balsam of Peru.
- Eugenol or isoeugenol.
- Lemon or limonene.
- Citrus oils.
- Peppermint oil.
- Rose oil.
- Tea tree oil.
“We even see botanicals in products advertised as fragrance-free. People think that fragrance-free means hypoallergenic. But if the moisturizer contains any of these botanical products, it’s definitely not hypoallergenic,” adds Dr. Estemalik.
Genetics and age
Go ahead and blame your dry skin on Grandpa Bill. He most likely passed it down to you. Age is also a factor, as changes to aging skin can make it drier, too.
Three ingredients your moisturizer should have
In addition to being hypoallergenic and fragrance- and botanical-free (affordable would be nice, too), Dr. Estemalik says the ideal moisturizer should be able to maintain the skin’s barrier function by containing these three things:
1. A humectant
Humectants hydrate your skin by:
- Drawing water up from your second layer of skin (dermis) to the topmost layer (epidermis).
- Helping you shed dead skin cells.
- Using the water in humid air to moisturize the epidermis.
Effective humectants include:
- Hyaluronic acid.
- Lactic acid
2. An occlusive
Occlusives work in tandem with humectants. They kick it up a notch, preventing moisture loss so your skin stays hydrated longer.
Look for ingredients such as:
3. An emollient
Emollients act like asphalt patches on a road of potholes: They fill in the cracks that dryness causes, smoothing and softening your skin. Emollients can also be occlusives, so get a twofer by choosing a moisturizer with:
- Mineral oil.
- Virgin coconut oil
- Palm oil
Other beneficial ingredients include:
- Antiaging ingredients such as vitamin C, retinol and growth factors (for facial moisturizers).
What makes a good body moisturizer?
To find the best moisturizer for your body, follow these tips:
- Lotion versus cream: Lotions contain more water and alcohol than cream, so they dry your skin more. The winner? Team Cream.
- Eat it, don’t wear it: “Food-grade oils such as olive oil have not been proven beneficial to the skin.” Dr. Estemalik says the exceptions are virgin coconut oil and sunflower seed oil.
- Say sayonara to fragrances and botanicals: “Like fragrance, botanicals are another common allergen to avoid, especially if your skin is sensitive. And the label should say fragrance-free — not scent-free — to guarantee no allergens.
Dr. Estemalik’s recommendations for body moisturizer:
- Aveeno® Eczema Therapy Moisturizing Cream.
- CeraVe® Moisturizing Cream or Lotion.
- Cetaphil® Pro Eczema Soothing Moisturizer.
- Cetaphil® Moisturizing Cream or Lotion.
- La Roche-Posay® Lipikar Baume AP+.
What makes a good face moisturizer?
“Face moisturizers need to be noncomedogenic, which means non-acne causing. The face is also oilier and has thinner skin than the body, which makes it more sensitive,” explains Dr. Estemalik. “A good facial moisturizer should be a bit lighter. A gel or lotion is generally better for the face unless you have really dry skin.”
Dr. Estemalik also recommends using a moisturizer with SPF year-round on your face and hands. “I like moisturizers that have a mineral SPF in it, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.”
Dr. Estemalik’s recommendations for face moisturizer:
- Avène® Tolérance Extrême Cream.
- CeraVe® PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion.
- La Roche-Posay® Toleriane Ultra Fluide.
What makes a good hand moisturizer?
For your hands, Dr. Estemalik says you should choose moisturizers that contain the emollient dimethicone. Dimethicone is a type of silicone that retains moisture.
Dr. Estemalik’s recommendations for hand moisturizer:
CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream, La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Mains Barrier Repairing Cream, Avène Cicalfate Hand Cream.
What’s the best skin care regimen for dry skin?
You’ve got the moisturizer. Now how do you use it? Surprisingly, there’s more to it than “just slather it on.” Dr. Estemalik recommends these steps:
- Shower less: It might seem radical, but it’s best to nix your daily shower. Try to lather up every other day. “Too much washing makes you more prone to eczema, too,” relates Dr. Estemalik. “I see people in their 50s with eczema who never had skin problems before. The insults to the skin accumulate until you eventually develop it.”
- Choose soap wisely: Wash with a gentle soap. “I think bar soaps are better than liquid soap.”
- Turn down the heat: Don’t shoot the messenger, but shower water should be lukewarm, not hot. “Hot water evaporates the moisture in your skin.”
- K.I.S.: Or in this case, keep it short — five to 10 minutes max per shower and focus on the “dirty areas” such as armpits, groin and feet.
- Don’t dry off completely: “As soon as you come out, pat dry, but keep a little water on your skin. Then apply your moisturizer within three minutes to help trap the moisture there.
- Moisturize and repeat: Moisturize every time you take a bath or shower. “Restoring the oils you lose when you wash will protect your skin.”