It’s no secret that the upcoming winter months can wreak havoc on your skin and hair. Between the frosty air temperature and drop in air moisture outside, and the drying heat from furnaces inside, this wintery cocktail can leave your skin and locks dry and brittle. Moisture replenishment is, therefore, key. Fortunately, there are many ways to get your skin and hair the nourishment they need. True to Trinity’s holistic health roots, the suggestions in this blog will take a two-pronged approach – hydrate from the inside out and the outside in. Read on for several strategies to achieve healthy skin and hair no matter what Mother Nature dishes out in this blustery season.
Dry, burning, itching, or flaking skin can be uncomfortable and unappealing. Yet without proper care, these challenges are common in winter months. Luckily, we’ve got some tips to share that’ll help defend your skin against the effects of cold weather.
Drink enough water
Have you ever felt tired and sluggish after going for several hours without water? Well, your skin feels the same way. We often don’t think about drinking water as much in winter due to the cooler temperatures, but wind combined with cold, dry air and humidity-diminishing heaters suck the moisture right out of your skin. You need to drink at least half your body weight in ounces of pure, clean water every day, meaning a 150-pound person should aim for 75 ounces daily. If you sweat from exercise or strenuous work, that amount increases. If you consume caffeinated drinks, which act as diuretics, that amount also increases as much as an additional six ounces of water for every cup of caffeinated beverage.11
Omega-3 fatty acids
Several different omega-3s exist, but most research focuses on three: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3s are an important component of skin cell membranes, and ensuring we have enough of them can support the barrier function of skin cells, which is critical in dry, frigid weather. Why? Because a strong skin cell membrane helps to retain moisture inside the cell, which, in turn, can lead to plump, glowing, youthful-looking skin. Obtain omega-3s from food sources such as salmon, sardines, almonds, walnuts, and avocadoes, as well as from supplements if needed. For both food sources and supplements, ensure they are free of toxic contaminants like mercury.7
Calorie for calorie, dark leafy greens like Swiss chard and spinach are some of the most nutrient-dense foods around, loaded with vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients. Other foods important for skin and hair health include nuts and seeds, which are particularly high in vitamin E and healthy fats that nourish skin and hair.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), autumn and winter are the seasons to restore our Yin energy (or restorative power) and moisten dryness. Foods that restore Yin energy have a sticky texture and are rich in gelatin, such as milk (choose organic from grass-fed cows if possible), pears, honey, and egg yolks (organic, free-range). Foods that moisten dryness usually have a sour taste, including strawberry, apple, orange, grape, blueberry, lemon, plum, and hawthorn, according to TCM.13
Use a humidifier or steamer
True to their name, humidifiers add moisture or humidity to the air, which your skin and hair can soak up to reduce dryness. Warm steam opens skin pores and hair cuticles to facilitate the absorption of moisturizing products as well. If you prefer adding moisture directly to skin and hair rather than using a general air humidifier, try a steamer. Since steamers apply warm moisture directly to the skin, they also act as a detoxifier or clarifier by opening facial and scalp pores to release toxins and then soak up moisture. Steamers come in several models, including tabletop, wands, caps, or guns.
Switch to a gentler, more moisturizing cleanser
The goal with a cleanser, especially in winter, is to not only clean skin but also increase its moisture. Look for products that say “gentle” or “moisturizing” on the label. Avoid ingredients like alcohol or sulfates that strip skin moisture, and instead, look for emollients like glycerin, shea butter, or jojoba oil. Another tip: fragrance-free cleansers are less likely to irritate skin that’s already stressed from harsh weather.
Avoid abrasive exfoliators and substitute fruit enzyme extracts
You may be tempted to skip exfoliating in the winter, but don’t. Developing patches of dull, dry skin is common in colder months, and a gentle exfoliator is a great remedy. Exfoliating also helps your moisturizing products penetrate better, which results in plumper, more hydrated skin. Moving away from harsh scrubs to less aggressive exfoliating products during colder weather is a good idea, though. Exfoliants like sugar or apricot kernel scrubs remove dead skin by manually sloughing them off. On the other hand, fruit enzyme exfoliants dissolve the keratin bonds in dead skin cells, lifting them away gently. Consider products with papaya enzymes, pineapple enzymes, pumpkin enzymes, strawberry seeds, cranberry and raspberry extracts, and grapefruit seed extract.9
Get serious about your moisturizer
Fall and winter can challenge even the plumpest, healthy skin, so ensure your moisturizer contains at least some (if not all) of these key ingredients: ceramides, humectants, and occlusives. Humectants and occlusives will be discussed in detail later in this article. Ceramides are lipids that naturally occur in high concentrations on the outer layers of skin, holding skin cells together and thereby forming a protective layer that locks in moisture. As we age, skin ceramide levels naturally decline, and they can also be lost through exposure to harsh environmental factors such as heavy winds and air pollution.3 There are nine different ceramides found in the skin, and they can be listed on product labels under different names. Sometimes labels simply say “ceramides,” but in other cases, they might state the specific type, like “ceramide AP, ceramide EOP, or ceramide NP.” While the chemical structure may differ, all ceramides function similarly.8
Minimum of 30 sun protection factor (SPF) product daily
Most of us think about sunscreen in the summer, but there’s a common misconception that it’s not as important for winter. While the sun’s rays generally aren’t as strong in the winter at some latitudes, they can still penetrate clouds and even through windows causing damage like sunspots, lines, and wrinkles. We cover more skin in the winter due to colder temperatures, but a good SPF product is still important for any skin that is exposed to the sun, even indoors. Zinc or titanium-based physical sunscreens applied at the end of your skin-care routine are best because they block the sun’s rays rather than absorbing them like chemical formulas. Additionally, look for fragrance-free, non-comedogenic products so they won’t irritate skin or clog pores.
Boost your occlusive barrier
Under a microscope, your skin’s protective barrier looks like a brick wall, with the cells (called corneocytes) stacked in rows with lipids (ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids) holding them together like mortar.4 Many things can damage this barrier, including inclement weather, dehydration, bacteria, harsh scrubs, and chemicals. Your year-round goal, but especially in the winter, is to protect your skin’s barrier to lock in moisture and keep out irritants. Occlusive products are moisturizing agents that form a protective barrier on the skin’s surface, thereby preventing moisture loss. Think of them as Saran Wrap for your skin. Examples include rose hip oil, argan oil, olive oil, jojoba oil, and tamanu oil.
Pair occlusives with humectant products
Humectants draw moisture to your skin’s surface to keep it hydrated. Even better, they add this hydration without feeling heavy or oily. Since humectants draw moisture to the skin surface, and occlusives lock that moisture in, combining the two is a powerful one-two punch for hydrating skin. Examples of natural humectants include hyaluronic acid, glycerine, sorbitol, and honey.12
Weekly deep moisturizing face mask
Masks create a barrier for the skin, locking in moisture while quickly delivering concentrated active ingredients. Think of a mask as a tool to “supercharge” skin with hydration. Look for ingredients such as shea butter, borage oil, primrose oil, avocado oil, hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, and niacinamide.
Hair strands are about 25% water,1 so winter dryness can compromise the health and appearance of your locks. In fact, Jack Frost may usher in many challenges, including hair and scalp dryness, brittleness, dullness, split ends, breakage, and static electricity. What can you do about these problems? Plenty. Let’s look at our winter hair 911 plan.
Drink ample water
As mentioned when discussing skin, you need a minimum of half your body weight in ounces of pure, clean water daily; more if you sweat a lot or drink caffeinated beverages (since caffeine acts as a diuretic). Frigid temperatures, low humidity, and blustery wind can also deplete moisture. Consuming hair health supplements is common, yet it’s also common to decide they don’t work. It could be that the problem is not with the supplements but rather a lack of water. When you get dehydrated, your body is wise enough to stop shuttling water to any area that isn’t necessary to keep you alive, and hair is not essential for life. Consequently, hair health can suffer due to not drinking enough water.10
Omega-3 fatty acids
We previously discussed the advantages of omega-3s for the skin, so the benefits for a dry, flaky scalp naturally follow. Some research also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may enhance hair growth and thickness.5 You can benefit from using omega-3 fatty acids to nourish hair both externally with hair masks and serums and internally through nutrient-dense foods like salmon, sardines, almonds, walnuts, and avocadoes, as well as from supplements. Just be sure to evaluate the quality of fish oil supplements to ensure they are free of contaminants like mercury.
Protein and iron
Many nutrients support general hair health, among them protein and iron. These two are critical nutrients for hair health, especially when strands are stressed by winter weather. Hair is composed of keratinized protein (fibrous, structural protein), so you must have a healthy supply of protein to replace any hair loss or damage. Seek protein sources from organic, grass-fed, free-range meats, eggs, and dairy products, or organic beans and legumes. Another option is a high-quality, organic protein powder (whey, egg, or vegan). Possibly leading to anemia, iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world and is often associated with hair loss.2 Iron is an essential component in red blood cell formation, and red blood cells supply the scalp with oxygen and nutrients to prevent hair damage and hair loss. Good food sources of iron include beef, turkey, lima beans, Adzuki beans, green peas, and sweet potatoes.
Avoid wool and acrylic hats
They’re warm, but wool is itchy, and both wool and acrylic fibers can make your hair frizzy and full of static. Substitute these options with satin or silk hats and scarves, or use satin or silk-lined hats.
Sleep on satin or silk pillowcases
Some beauty experts believe that cotton pillowcases can suck the moisture out of your hair, but satin or silk alternatives leave hair soft, silky, and shiny. Silk is expensive but considered the gold standard for retaining hair moisture since newer satin fabric is often made with a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers like polyester and rayon. Even so, satin is still much kinder to your hair than pure cotton.
Wash hair less often
If your scalp isn’t oily or your hair doesn’t have product build-up, try washing only every other day in colder temperatures, and use a non-sulfate shampoo. Sulfate shampoos can strip hair’s natural oils, making strands more susceptible to damage and color fading. They can also interfere with the effectiveness of treatments like keratin.6
Rinse with cool water
As opposed to hot or warm water, a cool water rinse will close the hair cuticle quicker to lock in any moisturizing products you applied, helping to prevent frizzing and promote shine. Once hair is dry, the cuticle closes anyway, but the sooner, the better, especially in winter. If a cold jolt is not your cup of tea, try lukewarm water.
Use a deep conditioner once a week and hair oils more often
All hair conditioners contain two primary types of ingredients: humectants and emollients. Humectants (like hyaluronic acid, fructose, and glycerin) bind to water and thus add moisture to hair, whereas emollients (like coconut oil or jojoba oil) soften hair and reduce moisture loss by coating strands with a protective film. Deep conditioners have a higher concentration of these two types of ingredients than daily conditioners, and they’re typically left on longer to penetrate deep into the hair shaft. If you’re so inclined, you can find many DIY deep conditioner recipes online. Look for recipes that include nourishing ingredients like honey, avocado, olive oil, shea butter, and plain Greek yogurt.
Healthy hair oils to apply two to three times a week include apricot kernel oil, coconut oil, olive oil, argan oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil, and almond oil. If you desire, add a few drops of essential oils like sage, rosemary, or lemongrass for the scent and extra nourishment. Where you place oil depends on what issues you’re addressing. For example, if you mainly have dry ends, apply oil only to the bottom few inches. If you have dry dandruff, then apply oil to the scalp. Either way, let it soak in for at least a half hour before washing. Heat the oil to a warm, not hot, temperature before applying it to open the cuticle for deeper penetration.
Skip blow drying as much as possible, or at least switch to a lower temperature and use a heat-protectant product to minimize moisture loss. If you have the time and hairstyle to accommodate it, consider letting your hair air dry. Just don’t go outside in cold temperatures with wet hair, as it could freeze and break.
Just because the weather is unsightly doesn’t mean your skin and hair must be. Choose from the many strategies listed above to protect them from harsh conditions. With a little extra care and planning, you can maintain healthy skin and hair throughout the winter months and beyond.
1. Advanced Hair Studios. (Nov. 19, 2020). 5 Awesome Benefits of Drinking Water for Hair. Downloaded 10/30/22, https://www.advancedhairstudioindia.com/blogs/benefits-of-drinking-water-for-hair
2. Almohanna, H.M., et al. (2019). The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Hair Loss: A Review. Dermatology and Therapy, 9(1): 51-70. doi: 10.1007/s13555-018-0278-6
3. Arizona Dermatology. (n.d). 9 Best Moisturizers for Winter. Downloaded 10/8/22, https://arizonaderm.com/9-best-moisturizers-for-winter/
4. Dizik, A. and Way, G. (December 17, 2021). How to Strengthen Your Skin Barrier to Prevent Irritation and Sensitivity. Downloaded 10/7/22, https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/beauty-style/boost-your-skin-barrier-better-complexion
5. Floc’h, C., et al. (2015). Effect of a Nutritional Supplement on Hair Loss in Women. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 14(1): 76-82. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocd.12127
This blog post was written by Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH, CBC.