Winter Skin Prep: What You Need to Know

Simple steps to protect your skin for the colder months

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As brisk fall fades to a balmy winter, now is the perfect time to consider shifting your skincare routine to stand up to the elements. TIME talked to Dr. Lisa R. Ginn, MD FAAD, owner of Skin@LRG in Chevy Chase, Md., about how to prepare for the colder months while setting up a routine that will leave you with a flawless facial palette year-round.

Why do the winter months have such a negative effect on our skin, especially our sensitive faces?

When I think of winterizing skin, I tell patients that the winter is the time to  nourish and repair some of the effects from sun exposure and heat we’ve had in the preceding months. Anytime the skin is dry, it’s going to become more sensitive and easier to be irritated. The winter tends to be harsher in most climates, so if you have any underlying dermatitis or eczema, that will tend to flair in the winter. But even if you have perfectly healthy skin and you don’t take the appropriate steps to insulate it, you can have problems with dryness and irritation.

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What are the major steps to preparing your skin for the colder months?

I tell patient that there are a couple of basic steps you really need to follow: exfoliate, hydrate, repair and protect. The problem is we all know about skin protection in the summer, but when it comes to winter, we often fall off on certain things. For cleansers, nothing needs to change during the winter, but a few rules do apply. Cream cleansers are milder and better for really dry skin. If you have normal or oily skin, a gel cleanser works well. After cleansing, these are the three steps that you should follow, not just during the winter, but year-round:

1. Exfoliate. In the winter your skin is constantly turning over, and that dead layer of skin needs to come off in a gentle fashion. That’s exfoliation. You can do it with scrub and cleanser or with chemical exfoliate, like glycolic acid or lactic acid, which are enzymes you find in products that gently melt away that layer of dead skin. In the winter, I tend to like lactic acid because it comes from milk and actually binds water, so as you’re exfoliating, you’re not drying out your skin. A tip I tell patients is, if you have dry skin and you put moisturizer on and it feels like it’s sitting on top of your skin, you’re not exfoliating enough.

2. Moisturize. You want to seal in as much moisture as possible in the winter. The old-school moisturizers were kind of greasy and heavy and laid on top of the skin. We now have moisturizers that actually pull water from the environment and provide a nice blanket of moisture. My favorite ingredient to look for in a serum or cream is hyaluronic acid. It’s not actually an acid; it’s a molecule that works like a sponge on top of the face to pull water in. It will give your skin a nice drink of water all day long without leaving you feeling greasy. Even if you have oily skin, it’s good because the more water you get into your skin, the less oily it will be.

An interesting fact: when you see moisturizers that contains collagen, that’s very misleading. Collagen is down fairly deep in your skin. No product you can get over the counter will get deep enough to provide your skin with actual collagen. Collagen and hyaluronic acid are both humectants, which means they attract water. Collagen products are more expensive than those that contain hyaluronic acid, and they don’t work as well. So I recommend that my patients find a serum or cream that lists hyaluronic acid as one of the first active ingredients.

3. Repair and protect: In the summer, dark spots get darker and redness gets worse. The winter, when you’re not in the sun, is a great time to repair damage from sun exposure. If you have dark spots, one of my favorite ingredients to look for is arbutin kojic acid, which will go after the cells in the skin that are making too much color and tone them down without affecting skin tone. If you tend to have redness, I like products that contain vitamin k or niacin. These are all things you don’t need a prescription for. And just because it’s not summertime doesn’t mean you get a break from sunscreen. Even on a hazy day, you’d be amazed at how much sun you can get.

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During the winter months, should we be trading in our usual products for something more effective?

You don’t have to worry about replacing all your products from one season to the next. The steps remain the same year-round, but you can make some tweaks when going into winter. If someone is using a glycolic product in the summer, I’ll switch him or her to a product that has lactic acid in the winter. If someone is using a hyaluronic serum in the summer, in the winter I might use the same serum, but add a moisturizer. When it comes to repairing and protecting, I’ll be a little more aggressive with skin lighteners in the winter, because people aren’t usually get as much sun in the winter, so it’s a good time to repair the damage. As for cleansers, they can typically stay the same year-round.

Do women and men in certain climates need to treat their skin differently during the winter months?

The steps are the same, but yes, you should adjust your products depending on the climate. If you live in a humid state, your skin is not apt to be as dry, so you can usually get away with a simple moisturizer. If you live in a drier climate, you should use not only a product with hyaluronic acid, but also a moisturizer that is a little richer that will help to seal in the moisture in your skin, since you can’t get it from the environment. For dry climates, I recommend using a serum, which can have 80-90% active ingredients, and a moisturizer that includes shea butter or glycerin to seal moisture in.

Another big winter skin issue is chapped lips or skin. What are some ways to treat this?

Chapped lips are one of the most common complaints I receive during the winter months. When you brush teeth, you can use the toothbrush to take a little bit of abrasion to the lips to flake off the dead skin. Then I like using a lip balm like Aquaphor, because you can put it on multiple times a day. And when it comes to lip color, I would stick with a long-wear gloss, which adds moisture, instead of a regular lipstick, which can dry out the skin.