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How To Deal With Sensitive Skin In The Winter, According To A Dermatologist

Skin Care

Here's what to products to use and which ingredients to avoid

I have sensitive skin, which means that testing out new products basically equates to a walking-on-eggshells type of dilemma. Especially in the winter, there's a fine line between products that break me out and products that dry me up (and some do both, lucky me!). What's worse, I have to completely change my skin-care routine when the colder seasons start, because what I use over the summer suddenly stops cutting it. It's a swell time, really, I have a lot of fun.

And I'm not alone in that fun. After speaking recently with Dr. Nikhil Dhingra of Spring Street Dermatology, it became clear that most people with sensitive skin of any sort have a similar struggle when the weather gets colder. He notes that a common thread between sensitivities like acne, redness, stinging, and dryness is a "higher propensity to inflammation, which is why any irritating products or even harsh environments can flare them up." Further, he says, "insufficient hydration, or excessive dehydration," abounds in the winter for those with sensitive skin, which leads to our skin getting super-dry. This dryness can actually lead to acne or eczema flare-ups, or trigger "other skin conditions that are otherwise well controlled."

And, too, certain ingredients become popular during the winter more so than during other months. Specifically, "oils, botanical extracts, and fragrances" are common in winter skin-care products, says Dhingra, "which can clog pores, trigger allergic reactions, and dehydrate the skin further." He notes that we shouldn't be using products that say they are "unscented," but, rather, checking the label to see if they're "fragrance-free."

He also notes that people with sensitive skin should try not to use anything too strong: "Overly harsh cleansers and soaps are an absolute avoidance; the oil on our skin is useful in protecting us from the elements." Even if your skin condition necessitates a more heavy-duty wash in the summer, which he says can "work well for acne-prone patients," this can change when the seasons change, "when over-drying can actually induce acne flares." In the same vein, using products that have beads in them, or using any type of exfoliating device, should be a no-go, since those "tend to exacerbate all kinds of skin conditions."

Above all, Dhinga says to "avoid overdoing it." Usually, when our skin breaks out or gets dried out, we're quick to test out as many products as possible all at once, in order to find something, anything that works. Instead, we should be working to find the one thing that isn't working in our normal routines. "A good place to start is to stick with the same routine but decrease the frequency of use of the products," he says. "Often, small adjustments with one element at a time, such as switching to a more gentle cleanser, can permit us to continue using the remainder of our routine even during the harshest months."

Dhinga also offered a few brands and ingredients that those with sensitive skin should have in their arsenal. Below are a few things that you could benefit from including in your skin-care routine.

Ceramedx, Extra Gentle Cleanser, $9.99, available at Ceramedx; First Aid Beauty, Ultra Repair Cream Intense Hydration, $30, available at Sephora.

Ceramides, Dhingra told me, "protect skin and seal in moisture," which is exactly what you need when you're struggling with sensitivities that end up drying out your skin. Ceramides act as a shield against your face and harsh winter winds.

Dove, DermaSeries Fragrance-Free Face Cream with SPF15, $9.89, available at Walmart; The Ordinary, Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, $5.90, available at The Ordinary.

"Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, is an excellent anti-inflammatory and anti-redness agent," says Dhingra. The ingredient is also moisturizing and brightening, so you'll definitely want to make sure it's in your beauty regimen.

CeraVe, Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum, $16.93, available at Walmart; Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare, Hyaluronic Marine Hydration Booster, $68, available at Sephora; Peter Thomas Roth, Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Cream, $52, available at Sephora.

Hyaluronic acid is a "naturally occurring substance which lures water to the surface of the skin." When my skin gets dry and flaky, this ingredient is my saving grace, so I was glad that my obsession with it was validated by Dhingra.

EltaMD, UV Clear Tinted Facial Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 46, $34.50, available at Amazon; Supergoop!, Skin Soothing Mineral Sunscreen with Olive Polyphenols SPF 40, $28, available at Amazon; Drunk Elephant, Umbra™ Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30, $34, available at Sephora.

Even though it's colder outside and the sun sets earlier, it's critical that you don't skimp on sunscreen. Dhingra says you should be applying a thin layer "every morning, even during winter," and that "mineral sunscreens [and] those with titanium and/or zinc are a must to protect from UV." While any mineral sunscreen will do, he is particularly fond of EltaMD UV Clear, which "goes on gently and is lightweight and oil-free."


Cetaphil, Moisturizing Lotion, $13.99, available at Ulta; Vanicream, Sunscreen Sport SPF 35, $16.02, available at DermStore; Dove, DermaSeries Fragrance-Free Face Wash, $13.24, available at Amazon; CeraVe, Hydrating Micellar Water, $8.54, available at Amazon.

The brands above—CeraVe, Cetaphil, Dove, and Vanicream—are the holy grail of drugstore brands when you have sensitive skin. Dhingra says they are gentle enough to recommend to "a vast majority of my patients."

La Roche Posay, Cicaplast Baume B5 Soothing Multi Purpose Cream for Dry Skin, $14.99, available at Walgreens; La Roche Posay, Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Face Cleanser, $14.99, available at Ulta;

If your skin gets absolutely unbearable during the winter, there's one brand that Dhingra says will be sure to rescue you: La Roche Posay. "For the most sensitive among us, La Roche Posay's Gentle Hydrating Facial Cleanser and Cicaplast Barrier Repairing Balm are fantastic," he says.

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