Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

Posted by Dr. Natasha Ryz on

The moisture barrier is a part of your skin barrier. 

The moisture barrier keeps your skin hydrated by trapping and holding water into your skin.

To prevent winter dry skin, you must protect your skin barrier, including your moisture barrier.

This article will discuss:

    • What is winter dry skin?
    • What is the moisture barrier?
    • Normal skin hydration
    • Water and skin cell turnover
    • How to protect your moisture barrier:
      • Drink water
      • Use a humidifier
      • Use a moisturizer with humectants
      • Limit exposure to cold weather
      • Protect your skin from the elements
    • Summary
    • References
Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

What is winter dry skin?

'Winter dry skin' is dry skin that develops during the cold winter season.

During winter, exposure to cold temperatures, low humidity, strong winds and sunlight can wreak havoc on your skin.

Winter dry skin can have a wide spectrum of symptoms - from mild dryness and flaking to severe itching, redness and pain.

Winter dry skin symptoms are painful and frustrating, and often associated with skin conditions such as eczema or atopic dermatitis. 

Exposure to winter weather can weaken your skin barrier and its protective functions.

Winter dry skin has been reported to involve scaling, defects in water holding and barrier functions, and decreased lipid levels in the skin barrier (Ishikawa et al, 2013).

Winter dry skin involves:

  • Defects in skin barrier functions.
  • Decreased water and water-holding capacity of the skin barrier.
  • Decreased lipids and fats in the skin barrier.

Learn more: Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    What is the moisture barrier?

    The skin moisture barrier is a part of your skin barrier. 

    The skin moisture barrier ensures your skin is hydrated by trapping and holding water into your skin.

    The skin moisture barrier is composed of water, natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and other humectants, such as glycerol and hyaluronic acid to attract and hold onto moisture.

    Learn more: What is The Moisture Barrier?

    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    Normal skin hydration

    Water is essential for the normal functioning of the skin. 

    The water content of skin is remarkably high - the epidermis (the outer skin layer) contains more than 70% water, while its outermost layer, the stratum corneum has been shown to contain ~15 - 25% water (Warner et al, 1988; Caspers et al, 2001; Caspers et al, 2003).

    Adequate hydration of the stratum corneum serves three major functions (Fowler, 2012):
    1. it maintains plasticity of the skin, protecting it from damage
    2. it contributes to optimum stratum corneum barrier function
    3. it allows hydrolytic enzymes to function in the process of desquamation

    When the water content of the stratum corneum falls below 10%, scaling on the skin surface becomes visible (Rycroft, 1985).

    The retention of water in the skin is dependent on:

    1. Natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and other humectants (such as glycerol and hyaluronic acid) to attract and hold onto moisture
    2. Intercellular lipids (fats) that form a barrier to prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL) (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007).
    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    Water and skin cell turnover

    Desquamation is the natural process of shedding skin cells.

    New skin cells are formed at the base layer of the skin, and they differentiate and migrate towards the skin surface, in a process that takes approximately 4 weeks. Nearly a billion cells are lost each day from the surface of adult skin (Milstone et al, 2004). 

    One of the critical functions of water in the skin is to participate in hydrolytic enzymatic processes required for normal desquamation. 

    In other words - water is necessary for the enzymes to function properly. 

    If the skin water content falls below a critical level, the enzymatic function required for normal desquamation is impaired, leading to skin cells sticking and building up on the skin surface (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007). 

    These changes lead to the visible appearance of dryness, roughness, scaling, and flaking (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007).

    Learn more: What is Dehydrated Skin?

     

    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    How to protect your moisture barrier

    The skin moisture barrier is composed of water, natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and other humectants, such as glycerol and hyaluronic acid to attract and hold onto moisture.

    There are several ways to protect your moisture barrier:

    1. Drink water
    2. Use a humidifier
    3. Use a moisturizer with humectants
    4. Limit exposure to cold weather
    5. Protect your skin from the elements
    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    1. Drink water

    Water is involved in virtually all bodily functions.

    Thus, ensuring that the body has enough water to maintain proper function is important for health. 

    Drinking water can increase your skin hydration, especially if you have a low water intake.

    Drinking an additional 2 L of daily water over 30 days showed an increase in both stratum corneum hydration and “deep” skin hydration, particularly when the individual’s regular diet included low amounts of water (Palma et al, 2012; Palma et al, 2015a; Palma et al, 2015b). 

    Another experimental study reported a slight increase in stratum corneum hydration after an additional dietary water intake of 1 L per day for a period of 42 days (Mac-Mary et al, 2006). 

    For hydrated skin, it is best to aim for 6 - 8 glasses of water or other fluids per day, as is recommended for general health. 

    Learn more: Does Drinking Water Help Dry Skin? Yes

    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    2. Use a humidifier

    Low humidity can worsen winter dry skin.

    Studies in humans show a reduction in transepidermal water loss (TEWL) (a measure of the integrity of the skin's barrier function) with low humidity, alterations in the water content in the stratum corneum, decreased skin elasticity and increased roughness (Goad et al, 2016).

    Indeed, when your skin is exposed to a dry environment, it could be more susceptible to mechanical stress (Engebretsen et al, 2016). 

    Dry air can be problematic for dry skin but using a humidifier can help improve dry skin by adding moisture back into the air.

    Humidifiers are devices that release water vapor or steam to increase moisture levels in the air - i.e., increase humidity. 

    It's best to keep indoor humidity levels between 30-50%.

    If the air in your home is too dry, then your dry skin will benefit from a humidifier.

    It is generally thought that humidity levels within occupied spaces should not exceed 60%, and when levels of humidity fall to around 30% or below, occupants begin to feel thermal discomfort (Goad et al, 2016).

    Learn more: Does A Humidifier Help with Dry Skin? Yes!

    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    3. Use a moisturizer with humectants

    You can protect your skin's moisture barrier by using a moisturizer that contains humectants.

    Humectants help to attract and hold onto water and maintain hydration in the skin.

    Humectants include natural moisturizing factors (NMFs), hyaluronic acid and glycerol.

    Hyaluronic Acid

    Hyaluronic acid is well known as one of the major components of the dermis, and is highly hygroscopic, meaning it can absorb moisture from the air.

    Hyaluronic acid provides hydration and structural integrity to the dermis (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007).

    Glycerol

    Glycerol is also known as glycerin.

    Interestingly, it has been shown that glycerol is made by our skin in the pilosebaceous unit and transported through aquaporin-3 (AQP3) channels to the skin. 

    Endogenous glycerol plays a role in skin hydration, cutaneous elasticity and epidermal barrier repair (Fluhr et al, 2008).

    The beneficial effects of glycerol on the skin have been recognized for over 75 years, and glycerol has been widely used as an ingredient of skincare formulations for its moisturizing and smoothing effects (Fluhr et al, 2008). 

    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    4. Limit exposure to cold weather

    Anyone who has felt the sting of frostbite knows that cold temperatures can damage your skin.

    Frostbite can occur during cold-weather activities when the temperature is below 0°C (<32°F). When skin temperature is -4°C (25°F), ice crystals form in the blood, causing mechanical damage, inflammation, thrombosis, and cellular death. Lower temperatures, higher wind speeds, and moisture exacerbate the process (Knapik et al, 2020).

    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    5. Protect your skin from the elements

    Daily insults from the environment, such as low humidity, wind, and sun, can lower the skin's water content, causing improper desquamation and the appearance of dry, flaky skin (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007).

    Strong wind causes winter dry skin

    Strong cold winds can strip moisture from exposed skin and disrupt the skin barrier. 

    In a study with healthy woman, a decrease in skin hydration and an increase in dryness score were found after the exposure to cold and dry wind (Roure et al, 2012).

    To protect your skin from wind damage, wear protective clothing, including a toque, face covering and gloves to protect your hands.

    Sun exposure causes winter dry skin

    Ultraviolet (UV) exposure from sunlight can damage dry skin. 

    In temperate latitudes, UV peaks on the summer solstice and is lowest at the winter solstice, though indirect, diffuse UV can still be high in winter (Kerr et al, 2005).  

    The UV Index is low during the winter in Canada, but skiing and other outdoor winter activities can increase your exposure. Bright white surfaces like snow can double your exposure to UV.  If you are skiing or doing other activities in the mountains, you will receive even more UV due to the elevation.  

    UV exposure from the sun is still a concern during the winter months in Canada and proper sunscreen or sunblock should be worn when spending time outdoors. 

    Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

    Summary

    The moisture barrier is a part of your skin barrier. 

    The moisture barrier is composed of water, natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and other humectants, such as glycerol and hyaluronic acid to attract and hold onto moisture.

    The moisture barrier ensures your skin is hydrated by trapping and holding water into your skin.

    To protect your moisture barrier:

    • Drink adequate water and fluids
    • Use a humidifier
    • Use a moisturizer with humectants
    • Limit exposure to cold weather
    • Protect your skin from the elements- wind and sun
    • Wear a face cover and gloves to protect against wind exposure
    • Wear sunscreen and sunblock to protect against sun exposure

    To prevent winter dry skin, you must protect your skin barrier, including your moisture barrier.

     

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     Winter Dry Skin - How To Protect Your Moisture Barrier

     

    References

    Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Mukherjee S, Chandar P. Stratum corneum fatty acids: their critical role in preserving barrier integrity during cleansing. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2013 Aug;35(4):337-45. 

    Caspers PJ, Lucassen GW, Carter EA et al. In vivo confocal Raman microspectroscopy of the skin: noninvasive determination of molecular concentration profiles. J Invest Dermatol 2001; 116:434– 42.

    Caspers PJ, Lucassen GW, Puppels GJ. Combined in vivo confocal Raman spectroscopy and confocal microscopy of human skin. Biophys J 2003 July; 85: 572-80.

    Engebretsen KA, Johansen JD, Kezic S, Linneberg A, Thyssen JP. The effect of environmental humidity and temperature on skin barrier function and dermatitis. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016 Feb;30(2):223-49.

    Fluhr JW, Darlenski R, Surber C. Glycerol and the skin: holistic approach to its origin and functions. Br J Dermatol. 2008.

    Fowler J. Understanding the Role of Natural Moisturizing Factor in Skin Hydration. Practical Dermatology. 2012; July. 36-40.

    Goad N, Gawkrodger DJ. Ambient humidity and the skin: the impact of air humidity in healthy and diseased states. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016 Aug;30(8):1285-94.

    Kerr JB. Understanding the factors that affect surface ultraviolet radiation. Optimal Engineering. 2005;44.

    Knapik JJ, Reynolds KL, Castellani JW. Frostbite: Pathophysiology, Epidemiology, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention. J Spec Oper Med. 2020 Winter;20(4):123-135.

    Mac-Mary S, Creidi P, Marsaut D, et al. Assessment of effects of an additional dietary natural mineral water uptake on skin hydration in healthy subjects by dynamic barrier function measurements and clinic scoring. Skin Res Technol. 2006;12:199-205.

    Milstone LM. Epidermal desquamation. J Dermatol Sci. 2004 Dec;36(3):131-40.

    Palma L, Marques LT, Bujan J, et al. Dietary water affects human skin hydration and biomechanics. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015a;8:413-421. 

    Palma ML, Tavares L, Fluhr JW, et al. Positive impact of dietary water on in vivo epidermal water physiology. Skin Res Technol. 2015b;21:413-418. 

    Palma L, Marques LT, Bujan J, et al. Relationship between the dietary intake of water and skin hydration. Biomed Biopharm Res, 2012; 2: 173-181.

    Roure R, Lanctin M, Nollent V et al. Methods to assess the protective efficacy of emollients against climatic and chemical aggressors. Dermatol Res Pract 2012; 2012: 864734.

    Rycroft RJ. Low humidity and microtrauma. Am J Ind Med 1985; 8:371–3.

    Verdier-Sévrain S, Bonté F. Skin hydration: a review on its molecular mechanisms. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2007 Jun;6(2):75-82.

    Warner RR, Myers MC, Taylor DA. Electron probe analysis of human skin: determination of the water concentration profile. J Invest Dermatol 1988; 90: 218–24.

    Dry Skin Moisture Barrier Winter

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