Winter Skin Care: Ultimate Guide

DIY Moisturizer

Skin so dry that it looks like a dried riverbed at high noon? Welcome to winter. Although these cold temperatures bring relief from many allergies, the risk of heat stroke, and clammy skin, they also reduce the amount of moisture in the air.

For many, this causes a season of misery as dry skin chafes, splits, cracks, and skin that just hurts.

SKIN 101

Sure, everyone knows what skin is. It’s – skin. It covers everything but our eyeballs and nails. First, a few facts about this most basic part of us.

It is an organ.

Yes, an organ; a self-contained organism that plays a vital function. It’s one of the body’s heaviest and largest organs, on average covering between 16 and 22 square feet. Making up about one seventh of the body’s weight, it generally weighs between 7.5 and 22 pounds.

Skin physically protects the body from the elements, germs, and harmful substances. The oil it produces creates an additional shield to block these things from getting into muscle, tissue, and bloodstream.

Skin plays a role in regulating body temperature. Sweat produced from its glands help cool the body. Skin is what allows us to feel heat, cold, pressure, pain, and things that make us itch.

Skin serves as a shock absorber, protecting the body from bumps and blows. It is also an insulator. Those are just the highlights; for more on how skin works, check out this article from Informed Health Online.

Yes, skin is busy. And you thought it was just lying there. Such a vital organ requires care all year round; but winter has its own challenges.


Why is winter so hard on skin? Ironically, it is because of the minimal presence of humidity, the bane of Mid-Atlantic summers. Humidity defines the amount of water vapor (moisture) in the air. While it’s possible to have dry skin in summer and oily skin in winter, generally skin reflects the air surrounding it.

When moisture content in the air is low, skin’s moisture tends to evaporate faster. The remedy is to help the body to hold onto what it produces.

To restore moisture to the skin, many concoctions have been stirred up over the centuries. Store shelves are filled with bottles, jars, and tubes offering simple to technological marvels. But basically, a good moisturizer:

humectants (ceramides, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, lecithin) draw moisture to the skin

oils (including petroleum, lanolin, and mineral oil) keep the moisture from evaporating

emollients trap moisture in the micro-spaces between skin cells, making the skin more pliant and soft

What you choose to accomplish these goals with should factor in your skin type, age, health, and environment. For example, sensitive skin can become irritated by ingredients commonly used to firm/tighten skin such as alcohol, fragrance, retinoids, or alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA).

Herbs and flowers have been used throughout the centuries in every corner of the world to moisturize, protect, and treat skin. There is a wealth of information and recipes out there for creating personalized winter skin defenders. Much of what grows in a Mid-Atlantic garden or farm can be used.

A study in Pediatric Dermatology found that sunflower seed oil improves skin hydration by spurring the production of ceramides and cholesterol, two key components of healthy skin cells.

What Which?

Ever wonder what the difference is between lotion, cream, butter, and balm? Basically:


Lotion consists of a 30/80 oil-to-water content and is thin enough to be dispensed through a pump or tube. It can be used all over the body, including the scalp, and is the best option for oily skin, providing moisture without clogging pores.


Cream has a 50/50 oil-to-water content and is thick enough to scoop from a jar or tub. It can be used on most parts of the body but is too heavy for the face (unless specifically made for the face) and for oily skin.

Balm / Ointment / Salve

Balm, ointment, and salve are terms used interchangeably for the most part. They have an 80/20 oil-to-water content. These products are traditionally used for more than moisturizing; they are used for managing skin conditions, wounds, and injuries. 

Beeswax may be included for texture and its beneficial properties.


Butter is 100% oil; it generally contains the meat of the fruit or nut. It may feel greasy when first applied but only until the oils are absorbed.

Types of Butter include AvocadoCocoaCoconutKukuiMango, and Shea

Calendula, chamomile, and lavender are often included in recipes such as The Herbal Academy’s Whipped Body Butter and lists of top picks like this one at MotherEarth Living.

If you’re keen on creating your own, personalized, winter care moisturizer, start with the oil-water ratio best for your skin and then play with combinations of different oils, herbs, and scents.


Popular oils include Argan, Coconut, Flaxseed, Jojoba, Olive, Sunflower Seed, and Sweet Almond.

Also experiment with essential oils like Grapefruit, Lavender, Orange, and Rosemary.


Distilled Rose (Flower) Water and other Hydrosols are very interesting to use. Hydrosols are waters into which flowers/herbs are distilled. More on that later.


Skin needs food to help it grow well

Herbs such as Calendula, Chamomile, and Rosemary.

Grains like Barley and Oatmeal

Flowers like Lavender and Rose are standards in skin care. 

Vitamins A, C, and E and minerals such as Copper and  Zinc are often found in skin care products. Enzymes such as Bromelain, Lycopene, and Papain (from pineapple, tomatoes, and papaya) and omega fatty acids such as alpha lipoic acid and DHA can also be experimented with.


For scent, go with any essential oil, hydrosol, or even fresh flowers or plants. Start with raw plants or order from Amazon or other reliable sources. Mix, steam, stir, store, and use.

Don’t Forget to Feed Your Skin

Blue plate holding salad continaing green beans strawberries, cashews, lettuce

What we eat plays a role in keeping skin happy all year round. Antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids may sound intimidating or too trendy to touch but these can be found in nuts, seeds (like flaxseed), berries, fruits, vegetables, fish, herbs, and flowers.

If you look at Prevention’s list of 25 top foods for skin and the slideshow of foods for supple skin from Mayo Clinic, you’ll find basic foods which may already be a part of your eating lifestyle.

Oily Skin

Having skin that produces excess oil could be seen as a good thing when the air is doing its best to suck every ounce of moisture out of said skin. But there is a balance. Of course.

Even with the dry air, oily skin can produce too much oil, causing pores to clog and acne to form. Recommendations for winter skin care include:

  • twice-daily washing,
  • using a light moisturizer (lotion),
  • daily sunscreen, use since sunburn can increase the occurrence of skin drying, and
  • use of salicylic acid instead of benzoyl peroxide for treating acne since it is not as drying.


Allergies have to be considered whenever exploring new plants and foods. Proceed cautiously when trying new oils or herbs, inside and out. The irony can be that something used to calm one person’s skin may be the trigger for an allergic reaction in someone else.

If it’s been years since you’ve had a scratch test, things may’ve changed. This I learned when a whole new crop of allergies were identified in an allergy scratch test taken 16 years after my first test. So, don’t dismiss itches and especially do not dismiss that funny tightening feeling in the throat when eating something you’ve never had a problem with before. See your allergist!  (OK, I’m down from my soapbox now)


  • Use a humidifier to counter the work of the furnace, wood stove, or heater. Leaving off the bathroom fan when showering is a low-cost way to add a little moisture to the air.
  • Hydrate by drinking fluids throughout the day. This should primarily be water, but broths, soups, foods with high-water content, and of course  a nice warming cup of herbal tea also count. Minimize sweeteners and caffiene since they tend to contribute to dehydration.
  • When outdoors, cover as much skin as possible to reduce the drying effect of the air.
  • Keep showers short (argh!) and water temperature lukewarm (sigh) say doctors, because hot water speeds the loss of the body’s oils.
  • Apply moisturizer to damp skin as soon after bathing/showering as possible. This allows your emollient of choice to trap that extra water before it can evaporate.
  • Steam facial provides a 2-for-1 deal for skin and sinuses. Low humidity can dry sinuses, making it easier for bacteria to invade the body. Steam can alleviate sinus pressure by thinning mucous, allowing it to drain more readily. The steam can open pores to the benefits of lavender or other aromatics added to the bath, says Prevention. But people with sensitive, damaged, very dry skin or who are prone to broken capillaries are cautioned. An herbal steam treatment may cause irritation.
  • Exfoliate regularly to keep dead skin cells from clogging pores and turning your moisturizing regimen into a recipe for acne. Explore body scrubs that combine salts and essential oils like this English rose scrub from Stylecaster.

Enjoying the unique beauty that winter brings can be made easier when your skin is adequately dressed.


What Is Skin? NIH.GOV

Moisturizers: Options for softer skin. Mayo Clinic. October 13, 2016

9 Ways to Banish Dry Skin. Harvard Health. December 8, 2015

Effects of Low Humidity on Health. January 13, 2014.

How to Take Care of Oily Skin in the Winter. Jan 15, 2014

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