A person bundled up in winter weather gear clutches their scarf, revealing only their wide eyes.

Winter is Coming: Choosing the Right Products to Fight Dry Skin

Brace yourselves. Winter is here. With the dead of winter hitting at breakneck speed, you know what that means for us with atopic dermatitis (eczema)! 'Tis the season for parched, flaky, itchy, angry, red, ashy, painfully unsexy skin! Happy holidays to us, right?

Since there is little we can do to stop winter from happening, we may as well arm ourselves with quality information that can help us come out of the colder months mostly unscathed. My skin gets especially dry in the winter months. After the sweat-induced hell that summer can bring, this initially seems like a blessing. That feeling quickly fades as winter progresses.

During my armchair research and fueled by my ever-intensifying love of K-beauty products and methods, I have learned a few things that were fundamental in getting my skin to at least a manageable level in the winter. Most importantly, I learned the difference between dry and dehydrated, along with the difference between hydration and moisture. For many years, I did not realize there were any differences between those groups of words.

So it essentially boils down to this.

What's the difference between dehydrated and dry skin?

When skin is dehydrated, it needs hydration. It needs to be able to draw in more water. Dry skin, on the other hand, needs help with keeping moisture and oils close to the skin.1,2

Why is skin dry in winter?

Eczema can cause unusually dry skin. During winter, even those without conditions like eczema can experience the discomfort dry skin is known to cause. But why does this happen? The increase in dryness is caused by low humidity in the air around us, which gets worse in winter months when there is less overall moisture in the air. Even our indoor heating systems can make dry skin worse!2,3

But it’s not just temperature changes that cause dry skin. It can also be caused by factors such as medicines, age, or pre-existing conditions (ahem, eczema, for instance).3

What's the difference between hydrating and moisturizing?

Hydration and products that tout it as a benefit work by increasing the content of water inside of the skin cells. Products that moisturize may work a bit differently. They often use oils or other humectants to stop water from escaping through the skin by creating a surface barrier. The process of water escaping through the skin barrier is called trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL).1,4

Basically, moisturizing is incredibly important when you have eczema. But it is not as simple as “one moisturizer fits all.” Learning about the three subtypes of moisturizers helped me understand how moisturizer could help or harm my eczema. Those are humectants, emollients, and occlusives.1,4

What are humectants?

Humectants are a type of moisturizer that works by collecting moisture, either from outside the body or inside our skin layers, to increase the water content in our skin cells. Humectants can absorb moisture from the air.1,4

But humectants can also be counterproductive to moisturizing skin when used alone because they evaporate too much moisture from the skin into the air. To prevent this from happening, they are often combined with occlusive ingredients. Notable examples of humectant skincare ingredients include lactic acid and urea.1,4

What are emollients?

Emollients are a little different in terms of how they work and what they can do to help eczema. Emollients contain water-insoluble ingredients, meaning they do not dissolve in water. They don’t form a barrier or film of fatty and waxy substances over the skin.1,4,5

Instead, emollients work by using lipids (fat cells) that closely imitate the lipids in our skin cells. The theory is that by adding the missing lipids that have been damaged by environmental or other factors, our skin can replenish and repair itself. This can make skin smoother but no more hydrated. Ingredients such as cetyl alcohol and ceramides are considered emollients.1,4,5

What are occlusives?

Occlusive products help keep skin moisturized by forming a water-resistant barrier on the surface of the skin. As mentioned above, occlusive ingredients are often added to humectant ingredients to prevent TEWL.1

Occlusive ingredients such as lanolin, argan oil, petroleum, and silicone-based products are crucial to managing symptoms of eczema, especially in the winter. They prevent damage to the epidermal barrier of the skin through the process of TEWL by preventing the loss of water in the first place!1,4,5

Be wary of olive oil as your choice of occlusive. It contains oleic acids, which have a negative effect on the skin barrier over time. I recommend applying occlusives to damp skin for the best performance.4-6

How will you manage your eczema this winter?

I hope you enjoyed the article and have a bit more knowledge about which ingredients will help you manage your eczema this winter. If you are unsure what kinds of products can best help this winter, be sure to check out some of the other content here on AtopicDermatitis.net.

For a list of well-tested products for eczema, visit the National Eczema Association website and check out their ‘Seal of Acceptance’ products!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The AtopicDermatitis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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