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Skin Deep

It’s that time of year when we start looking at the other side of winter and glimpse hints of spring. It’s still a ways off, though. For some of us, winter spurs concerns about our skin—the dry air and longer hours of darkness can really start to take a toll.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Beauty is only skin deep.” But in reality, our skin is so much more than beauty, said Dr. Orville Hartford, a Bangor dermatologist.

“Our skin is really the major interface we have with our environment,” he said. “It protects us, but it also gives us a window of what is going on inside of us.”

Dr. Debra Baker, a chiropractor in Hampden, concurs.

“Our skin is a reflection of what is going on inside of our body,” she said. “It’s the largest organ of our body, and people don’t realize this.”

This is perhaps why we run into problems in the winter months with our skin. “Dryness can lead to itchiness, and then the itch/scratch cycle begins,” said Hartford, “causing the skin to break and become damaged, cracked, itchy. An infection can be introduced. That’s what brings people to our office.”

He said that at this point, medication may be needed to calm the resulting pain and irritation. An appointment with a health care professional can be prevented, however, with preventive care including careful moisturizing and hydrating. According to Baker, however, some caution is prudent.

“[Our skin is] the largest absorbent of our body,” she said. “By lathering up with creams that have chemicals, we’re adding toxins, bombarding our bodies with colors, dyes and fragrances. These toxins accumulate and stay in the fat cells in our body.”

Even skin exfoliation to scrub away dead skin cells should not be considered a winter skin remedy, according to Hartford.

“Our skin is vulnerable, and once the skin becomes damaged, it cannot protect us from the environment,” he said. “If skin is broken, we have chance for infection, and adding some chemicals found in over-the-counter products can cause a more irritating shift.”

Dani Dow, a licensed esthetician in Bangor, said winter is a good time to start repairing summer damage. Lack of sunscreen or using sunscreen void of zinc, oil and plant-based ingredients creates damage. In the winter, that damage becomes more noticeable.

“When it’s cold, then mild, then cold again, skin gets confused and does not know how much moisture to produce on its own,” said Dow. Hartford concurs: “As we get older, into our 40s and 50s, we don’t produce many natural oils in our skin, and while drinking a lot of water is good for you, you’re not going to be able to drink enough to repair skin damage.”

“In the winter, we need to wear gloves, mittens and hats…forget about your hair looking nice; it’s more important for your head and hands to be warm,” said Dow. In fact, Hartford says to put on gloves to protect your hands before you head out, even if it’s just to start the car.

Your scalp requires attention, too. “When it comes to your scalp, hair colorings can be an irritant, so use an oil on your scalp before you color,” said Hartford. Good oils for your scalp and, indeed, all of your skin include olive, coconut, tea tree, jojoba, fish and shea butter.

When it comes to your feet, “you can soak [them] in Epsom salts mixed with water, or a mix of apple cider vinegar and water,” said Baker. “This will help balance your overall pH.”

Creams, not lotions, are ideal for winter use. “Creams are denser, and that is what our skin needs to defend us from the harsh winter weather,” said Hartford. He added that there is a simple product that we all should embrace. “There’s an ingredient that has a horrible name—‘petroleum jelly’ (commonly referred to by its trade name, Vaseline)—but it’s one of the most inert, non-reactive compounds, and it’s a very good skin protector.” He admits that it’s a greasy fix and cannot be absorbed—but it can seal in the moisture our skin needs.

Finally, we need to remember to care for our lips. Hartford said waxy ChapStick works to prevent damage, and if your lips are damaged, then Vaseline is the best.

Ultimately, our skin care is a look into the future. Baker said we have a choice as to how we care for our skin through the weather and years. “Natural products always cost more,” she said, “but in the long run you can look like a wrinkled up old prune, or you can look like a gently aging prune.”

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