November 2, 2017 — 9:40 AM
If you’re one of the lucky ones dealing with dry skin year round, you know when winter comes it’s game time. There’s no such thing as too many hand creams, lotions, and body oils. Perhaps you keep a stash of hydrocortisone and petroleum jelly, too, for those unbearably itchy days.
Here’s the thing about moisturizing agents—whether or not they “work” depends on how they interact with your skin’s natural barrier. “An ideal moisturizer would repair the skin barrier, increase water content, and reduce trans-epidermal loss,” said dermatologist Cybele Fishman, M.D. Have you ever washed your hands shortly after applying lotion, for example, and experienced increased dryness afterward despite the fact that you moisturized? You’re likely disrupting your skin’s barrier with the wrong balance of ingredients in your skin care, which can lead to stripping when combined with hand soap (or worse, dish soap) and water, as well as dehydrating paper products and hand dryers.
When it comes to moisturizers, there are three types, and each serves a different purpose. All three subgroups are capable of repairing the skin’s barrier according to Dr. Fishman, but it’s important to find a product that contains all three or to use a combination of products in order to ensure your skin stays smooth and supple.
Emollients sit on top of the skin between skin cells, filling in micro-cracks in the skin and making it appear fuller and smoother. Aloe vera, ceramides, and other lipid-based oils like linoleic acid are examples of emollients. Heavier substances like oil, wax, and petroleum jellies that form a barrier on top of the skin are called occlusives. Occlusives create a seal on the skin wherever they’re applied, so it’s best to use them when the skin is still damp or after your other products. Finally, the tricky one: humectants. Humectants draw moisture from the environment into your skin and include ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin. They work because they’re hygroscopic, which means they can absorb water, but if humectants don’t absorb into the skin, they can actually pull moisture from the dermis and into the atmosphere, creating a drying effect. “I think most cases of hand eczema are a result of impaired barrier function with resulting inflammation—harsh soaps, cold low-humidity air are two common causes,” Fishman said.
Many products contain all three, so you shouldn’t have to use more than one product, Fishman said. But if you use body oils or butters to moisturize your skin, especially products from the natural beauty world, reading labels and reorganizing the order of your skin care can make a world of difference for chronically dry skin. Most oils are occlusives, so they should be used last. Use products that contain emollients and humectants first before applying oils, and moisturize after washing your hands, not before, Dr. Fishman advised.
One superfood ingredient that’s shown promising improvements for people with atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is colloidal oatmeal. First, a bit about the name, as it’s different from breakfast oatmeal—the oats are finely ground and, when added to water, expand to create a gel-like substance that acts like an emollient, helping soothe the cracks in dry skin. A “colloid” is a fancy chemistry term that simply means an evenly distributed mixture of one substance (oatmeal in this case) suspended in another (water).
“There are polysaccharides (long sugars) that bind water to the skin surface, making colloidal oatmeal a humectant. It has lipids, which reinforce the skin’s barrier, and saponins, which are like natural soaps and anti-infective. It also contains the antioxidants ferulic acid, caffeic acid, and coumaric acid. Finally, it contains avenanthramides A, B, and C that are anti-inflammatory,” said Dr. Fishman.
Existing research supports her statement. One study showed that a 1 percent colloidal oatmeal cream alone was enough to calm symptoms of eczema and atopic dermatitis. In other, avenanthramides, one of the active phytochemicals in oats, has proved to be anti-inflammatory. “I’ve used them to soothe eczema patches and have had good results using them in hand creams, too,” said Sarah Villafranco, M.D., and founder of Osmia Organics.
If you didn’t know, now you do. Here’s to a well-hydrated winter!
Transitioning to natural skin care and don’t know where to start? Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of the best products and ingredients by skin type.
Lindsay is the senior wellness and beauty editor at mindbodygreen. She’s a yoga teacher, podcast host, and enjoys almond milk lattes, breaking a sweat, abstract art, and writing about…