Making winter weather easier on your skin

Cold and sun outside, heat inside make the season a threat to healthy skin

Health & Fitness

December 21, 2003|By Mary Beth Regan | Mary Beth Regan,Special to the Sun

Ski instructor Andi Broom knows a thing or two about caring for skin in the cold.

Each winter weekend, Broom, her husband, Scott, and two daughters, Molly, 10, and Taylor, 9, hit the slopes armed with sunscreen, lip balm and moisturizers. Broom teaches skiing at Whitetail Mountain Resort in Mercersburg, Pa., while her husband volunteers to help his daughters' downhill race team.

The Brooms spend hundreds of hours in the brisk winter air. "We have to be even more careful in the winter than in the summer," says Andi, who lives in Towson.

Dermatologists agree. The harsh winter months are no time to slack off on skin care. The cold air outside robs skin of much-needed moisture, and the sun's rays can be even more hazardous because people are not as likely to apply protective sunscreens.

What's more, people working inside may find their skin tightening and drying, too. Indoor heat dries out the air, leaving little moisture for skin to absorb. Long hours inside also can mean increased exposure to pollutants, such as cigarette and cigar smoke, speeding up the skin's aging process, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

And about 5 percent of Americans will develop eczema this winter -- a red, scaly, itchy rash of unknown cause that usually requires a doctor's visit and treatment with prescription steroid ointments.

Skin-care experts suggest a number of tips for winter skin care, everything from adding a few drops of oil to your bath water to slathering your skin with moisturizer within seconds of stepping from the tub. The best advice: Use a moisturizer.

Still, deciding on a moisturizing product can be a dizzying experience.

Skin-care companies market nearly 1,000 different lotions and moisturizers in the United States, ranging from Bag Balm, a lanolin-based ointment developed in the 1890s for use on cow udders, to new, high-tech "cosmeceuticals" such as Avon's Anew line, which promises to reverse aging by stimulating the regrowth of skin cells.

The global market for cosmetics, fragrances and toiletries is roughly $141 billion, says Linda Weiser, an analyst with Oppenheimer & Co. in New York. Of that, skin-care products account for about $30 billion in annual spending.

In the last decade, medical researchers have made great strides in understanding the rejuvenation of the skin, which is the body's physical barrier against infections.

As a result, industry giants such as L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Avon are teaming up with dermatologists and pharmaceutical companies to try to produce vitamins, creams, injections and lotions that reverse the process of skin's aging.

"Companies are looking for products that have a health benefit," says Weiser. "And everyone is after that Botox in a bottle."

A stroll down one of the Internet's virtual aisles, www.eshop.msn.com, turns up more than 800 lotions, ranging in price from 99 cents for Rite Aid's Skin Care Lotion, Dry Skin Formula, to $300 for La Prairie's Luxe Body Cream, which claims to protect skin from cellular damage.

Mona Mofid, director of the outpatient clinic for dermatology at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, warns that price does not translate into quality.

"Plain old Vaseline jelly is about $2 a tub, and it works great on hands and feet," says Mofid. "If you buy the expensive products, make sure you get the free gift."

In lotions, people should look for ingredients that grab moisture from the air, such as glycerin, or hold moisture against the skin, such as mineral oil or petrolatum. The most effective moistures do both. A few dermatologists' over-the-counter picks: Cetaphil or Eucerin.

For people who want to protect their skin from aging associated with pollution and ultraviolet light, dermatologists suggest over-the-counter antioxidant products. Antioxidants, naturally occurring substances found in green tea, pomegranates, tomatoes and other foods, block free-radical formation.

Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that have one electron instead of two. To become stable, these molecules rob cell membranes of electrons, thus hampering their function.

Antioxidants, applied topically or ingested, halt the formation of free radicals and prevent skin-cell damage. Some examples: SkinCeuticals and Replenix.

Over-the-counter retinoid products help erase signs of aging such as fine lines, wrinkles or sun spots, according to Leslie Baumann, chief of the division of cosmetic dermatology at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Baumann recommends using retinoid products with moisturizers in the winter.

"Retinoids may be drying, so look for products that contain mineral oil and are more hydrating," she says.

The most important winter skin-care precaution may be sunscreen. Dermatologists recommend broad-spectrum sunscreens that block the sun's dangerous UVA and UVB rays. Snow reflects 80 percent of the sun's rays, making skiing, snowboarding or snow tubing as dangerous to your exposed skin as riding waves in the ocean.

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