Cold weather is tough on the skin, especially when you’re spending a lot of time inside with the heater cranked up. While your face might feel dull, dry and flaky in the beginning, the damage is being perpetrated from the inside-out, by slowly chipping away at the skin barrier. Not sure how to protect it? We asked the pros.
What is the skin’s natural barrier?
The skin’s outmost layer, stratum corneum, is composed of skin cells, lipids, cholesterol and natural moisturising factors (NMF) like amino and fatty acids. This layer acts as a protective shield that also holds on to moisture. “The skin barrier and the outermost layer is composed of tough cells known as corneocytes, They are present in the uppermost layer of skin, which looks like bricks containing keratin and natural moisturisers. These are connected to each other by lipids, which act as mortar between these cells connecting them,” says Dr Soma Sarkar, medical director at Dr Soma’s Dermatology and Aesthetic Clinic. These lipids move moisture between the cells and take it to the deeper layers. “This layer physically protects the skin and our body from external threats such as infections, chemicals, microbes, pollutants and allergens. Internally, it helps to protect us from enhanced loss of water from the body,” says dermatologist Dr Ameesha Mahajan, founder, RM Aesthetics. While applying the right moisturisers can help protect and maintain this barrier, there are many factors which can compromise it. Our skin is naturally acidic, which a pH level between four and five, which is our skin’s way of protecting it and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, fungi, which can cause infections, allergies, acne, and make it more susceptible to irritants. So when the weather turns cold and you see your skin dry out, it develops cracks in the protective layer like a brick wall.
“In the initial stages, you can observe dullness, loss of elasticity in the skin. In more severe stages, you can have redness, itching and severe dryness. If the barrier function is really damaged, one can also develop eczemas and atopic dermatitis,” says Dr Mahajan. If your skin doesn’t feel plump, firm and soft to touch, you know the barrier is weakened.
5 things you can do to protect your skin barrier in colder weather
1. Baby your skin
“You need to maintain the balance of the skin’s pH value and an easy way to do it is to not overdo with products and treatments and stick to a regular skincare regime,” says Dr Sarkar. “Make sure to use mild agents for exfoliation and restrict it to not more than two times a week. Actives and acids work by peeling off the dead upper layer but very strong agents will damage the barrier and the skin,” says Dr Mahajan. Washing your face too often will also affect this barrier, so use a gentle cleanser, without moisture stripping alcohols, and do not use very hot water to wash your face. Cleansers with sulfates can also dry out the skin, especially when you are over-washing, “If your skin feels stretchy, it’s a sign that you are using the wrong cleanser and that your barrier is being disrupted,” says Dr Mahajan.
2. Top everything off with an oil
When repairing the moisture barrier, you want to stop transepidermal water loss in its path. A facial oil will seal everything in, especially if you’ve been applying mists, serums and moisturisers underneath. Oils are gatekeepers of hydration, so they act as a sealant for any humectant and emollient ingredients applied first.
3. Look for barrier-building ingredients
“Use moisturisers which contain ingredients like ceramides (which build our skin), squalene, peptides and humectants like hyaluronic acid. You can even use something simple as petroleum jelly to seal in the moisture,” says Dr Sarkar. “Ceramides are present in our skin too, and products with ceramide help rebuild the barrier when compromised. Collagen and elastin in our skin also keep it soft and young, and peptides help build these. So look for peptides in your moisturisers too.”
4. Shield against UV damage
Sun damage can directly affect your skin’s barrier. It shows on the skin in the form of dark spots, discolouration, skin that feels parched and even premature signs of ageing such as fine lines. “Apply and re-apply your sunscreen every two to three hours as UV rays degrade our skin proteins and weaken the skin’s barrier function,” says Dr Mahajan.
5. Install a humidifier
If your skin feels dry and uncomfortable, a humidifier can pump moisture into the air. This can help it to stop acting like a moisture magnet and stealing water from your skin.