For most of us, winter riding means maintaining your base through the off-season, possibly spending more time on the trainer, and maybe even preparing for a spring race. But it also means having to deal with dry, flaky, chapped, and cracked skin after outdoor rides in the cold.
Winter can wreak havoc on skin for many reasons. Low humidity levels tend to degrade the skin’s natural moisture barrier, which can lead to flaking and peeling, explains Dendy Engelman, M.D., dermatologist at Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York City. “Dehydration is also more evident in winter, as well as factors like indoor heating and hot showers, which can dry out and disrupt the lipid layer of skin that locks in moisture,” she explains.
If you’re riding outside in chillier temps though, dry skin seems to be an even bigger issue, especially when you’re crushing higher cadence. “That’s because of something called wind chill factor,” explains Neal Schultz, M.D., dermatologist in New York City. Cycling increases the speed of the air that comes in contact with the skin and as a result, there’s greater evaporation than when you’re standing still.
Think of it like this: If you have a flood and your carpet gets wet, do you let it sit there and dry out or do you take fans and try to blow it dry? You’d use fans because they can speed up the air being directed at the carpet for better evaporation. “When you increase the speed of wind across skin, you get greater evaporation, which dries it out more, just as the fans do with carpet.”
But all that doesn’t mean you have to stay indoors or slow down. The best way to protect your skin is a good defense in the form of a moisturizer that shields your skin from the wind before it even starts to chap.
You might think a face lotion is just a face lotion, and that all moisturizers are created equal, but there are three main types of moisturizers to consider: emollients, occlusives, and humectants.
Emollients help soften and smooth the skin. “So in terms of ingredients, we look for products that contain Shea butter, cocoa butter, or oils,” says Engelman. These are key ingredients when it comes to softening and protecting the skin from the elements.
Humectants are ingredients or products that retain moisture. “Humectants can absorb up to 1,000 times their weight in water, so for example, hyaluronic acid would be a humectant,” explains Engelman. Other humectants are glycerin and alpha hydroxy acids. Humectants are some of the best products for dry skin protection.
Occlusives block external factors and lock moisture in. “These are an armor type of barrier, absolutely and completely protecting the skin from the wind,” explains Schultz. These are ingredients or products such as lanolin, Aquaphor, and mineral oil. “However, these products tend to be greasy and not as much fun to wear. And it’s not a great idea to wear these if you’re sweating, because they will hold in the sweat and possibly cause clogged pores.” Occlusives are best to be used on lips or even nipples when riding, places that don’t sweat but still need protection.
How to Apply Your Moisturizer
While it may seem counterintuitive, it’s still important to exfoliate your skin before putting on moisturizer prior to exercise. “A buildup of dry skin can create a barrier that prevents your skin from absorbing hydration, moisture, and nutrients,” explains Engelman. She suggests using a gentle facial cleanser that contains glycolic acid to help safely remove that barrier.
Exfoliation should be followed by SPF. “You don’t want your sunscreen to be the wind protectant,” explains Schultz. “You want it to do what it’s supposed to do and protect you from the sun. Don’t try to get double protection out of it.” He suggests a light sunscreen as to not clog pores.
Finally, a moisturizer should be applied as the last layer of defense against the cold and wind.
Things don’t always go according to plan, and you may end up with dry skin or windburn postride. If you get windburn, you want to use milk and water compresses on it, suggests Schultz. “Both take the fire out. The protein in milk is a great buffer to restore the pH, and it will feel good against the skin,” he says. “Then, apply an over-the-counter ointment, not cream like cortisone, which can help with inflammation.”
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