When you’ve just gotten home from a long, cold bike ride, what’s the first thing you do to warm up? Do you peel your shoe covers off of your numbed feet and settle down by the fireplace? Do you stick your head in the fridge to hunt down a fast snack, or do you instantly strip down and hop into the hottest shower you can handle?
If you opt for the shower, we don’t blame you—but it might not be the best thing for your body (and skin) postride.
While dermatologist and marathoner Sandra Marchese Johnson, M.D., FAAD, completely understands the urge to boil yourself like a lobster, she’s not a big fan of going from frozen nose and toes to steaming hot in a matter of minutes.
“The cold air from a ride combined with a super hot shower will be dehydrating to the skin,” she tells Bicycling.
We spoke with Marchese Johnson and Stephen Cheung, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Brock University in Canada, to get all the details on why you might want to wait to hop in the shower and what you can do when you first come back from a chilly ride instead.
Why Hot Showers Should Wait Until You Warm Up
Cold-weather rides can be dangerous, especially if you’re going from sweaty intervals to a super-chill endurance pace; wearing wet clothes makes it harder to keep your core temperature up, according to the Mayo Clinic. And, in wind-chill levels below minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s important to remember that any exposed skin is at risk for not only getting chapped and dry, but also for frostbite.
Once you make it home, take a few minutes to let your body get back to room temperature, Marchese Johnson says, instead of instantly sprinting for a hot shower. The amount of time it takes for you to warm up will depend on how cold you get during your ride and how warm you keep your house.
How to Warm Up Your Body Before Showering
“The sweat and toxins then stay on the skin and can cause friction or a change in your normal skin microbiome,” Marchese Johnson explains. “For example, damp clothes that rub the buttocks can cause friction and [promote the growth of] yeast or pityrosporon, which causes butt acne. We sweat out a lot of toxins, and we want to wash those off as quickly as possible after we sweat.”
If you have access to a sauna or steam room, those are great options for a fast warmup, as long as they’re not too hot.
But if you’re dying to get clean, consider starting with a cool shower, then slowly increasing the temperature to avoid the extreme changes in skin temperature.
Why You Should Eat and Hydrate, As Well
While you’re waiting to warm up in your cozy robe, consider having a snack—you’re likely pretty hungry after a chilly ride. Cheung spends his days studying the environmental effects on the body, specifically the cold, and says that shivering on the bike can increase your energy demands. If you’re shaking for most of your ride, you might be burning four to five times more than your normal basal metabolic rate. And anecdotally, he’s found that exercise in the heat tends to dampen appetite, while the opposite appears true with exercise in the cold.
Based on Cheung’s findings, pre-planning a post-ride meal to avoid raiding the fridge when you get back is a smart idea. Consider options like soups or even hot chocolate that will help bring your body back to normal hydration levels while refilling glycogen stores. Bonus: You’ll also start to warm up faster, so that shower can happen sooner.
It’s worth noting that hydration in general—before, during, and after your ride—is important in the winter, even if you aren't as thirsty as you are during hot summer rides. The more hydrated our bodies are in general, the more hydrated our skin is, Marchese Johnson explains.
What to Do When It’s Time to Shower
Once you do hit the shower, though, the good news is that you can run the water as hot as feels comfortable for you. Most dermatologists agree that lukewarm water—around your body temperature at 98.6 degrees—is the best temperature to keep oil and moisture in your already-dry skin, but Marchese Johnson says it’s fine to warm it up more than that if lukewarm showers sound terrible to you. (Skip the oil-fighting harsh soaps and loofahs in favor of more gentle soaps as well, the Mayo Clinic recommends.)
Just make sure you're moisturizing—especially if you’re shaving your legs.
“The transepidermal [through skin] water loss decreases the skin barrier,” Marchese Johnson explains. “When we shave our legs, we also shave off a little bit of the top layers of epidermis, which hurts and causes razor burn. You can hydrate or use lotion to shave instead of a gel or plain soap—the key, again, is to apply bland moisturizer to the skin after every shave, bath, shower, or cold exposure.”
If you tend to feel more than a simple sting of hot water hitting cold skin, don’t panic: You’re experiencing “cold panniculitis,” which is when your fat—the subcutaneous tissue right under the skin—gets cold, and is then exposed to hot water, Marchese Johnson explains.
“This can be very uncomfortable,” she says. “If you feel this every time you shower after a cold ride, warming your skin up before hopping in the water is even more important.”
Another winter cyclist problem: Folliculitis, or irritated and infected hair follicles. If you've notices a pimply rash on your butt or legs, and you regularly ride in freezing temps, shave frequently, and hop in a post-ride hot tub, you may be dealing with more than mere razor burn, says Marchese Johnson.
The Bottom Line
The next time you head out on a cold ride, make sure that every inch of exposed skin is covered with some kind of barrier.
“The key is to keep your skin hydrated—we lose a lot of water from our skin,” Marchese Johnson says. “I often apply Vaseline or another bland moisturizer to exposed skin to protect it from the cold and elements. "
Preventing dry skin even while biking in the snow every day is possible. But adopt Marchese Johnson's mantra: “Remember, moist skin is happy skin. Dry skin is unhappy skin.”
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