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What's the best way to moisturize?

Dry skin is a common complaint in winter, but what’s the best way to moisturize and keep skin feeling good?

Not all moisturizing products are created equal, says Piedmont dermatologist Jodi Ganz, M.D. What’s more, many people use the wrong items for their skin concerns or apply them ineffectively.

“People will often think in the winter that they want to put a body oil on,” Dr. Ganz says, “but that doesn’t moisture as much as it should.”

Keeping your skin hydrated is a real health issue, she adds.

“It gets dry and itchy, and then you scratch,” she points out. With too much scratching or dryness, the skin becomes prone to cracking and infection.

The differences between moisturizers

Moisturizing products like oils, lotions and creams fall on a spectrum, Dr. Ganz explains. Oils are the thinnest: more water-based with less ointment.

Lotions are thicker, and creams and ointments even more so. If you’re dealing with flaky or cracking skin, you’ll want a thicker product like a cream to manage it.

Although oils aren’t as effective for dry winter skin, they can still be useful.

“You’ll be able to spread an oil over a larger area than an ointment,” Dr. Ganz says.

Skincare products can get expensive, but unless your goals are cosmetic or anti-aging, she says you probably don’t need to splurge. Drugstore brands work fine for hydration.

“If your goal is moisture, the over-the-counter ones really do a good job,” Dr. Ganz says.

What to look for in moisturizers

To recognize a good moisturizer, check the labels for ingredients. Here are a couple key ones to look for:

  • Ceramides: These are a type of lipid – good fats for your skin. They work as “kind of the glue between your cells,” Dr. Ganz says.
  • Hyaluronic acid: This trendy ingredient seems to be everywhere these days, and for good reason. It’s essentially just sugar that binds water, but you lose it as you get older, so it’s common in cosmetic products.

What’s the best way to apply products?

Dr. Ganz’ rule of thumb is to apply moisturizer right after you exit the shower and, ideally, each time you wash your hands.

“Think of your skin as a sponge,” she says. “A wet sponge works better at cleaning up mess than a dry sponge.” When your skin is damp, it will soak up the moisture better.

Your extremities, which don’t receive as much blood flow, are particularly susceptible to dryness and may need extra attention.

“The hands in particular get washed all the time,” Dr. Ganz adds, “so you get into this cycle of wet-dry, wet-dry, which is really bad for retaining moisture.”

Over-cleaning your skin can be drying as well, she says. If you’re having problems, try using milder soaps on your hands.

Not every dryness issue can be solved with over-the-counter remedies. If your skin doesn’t respond to daily moisturizing, you may have eczema or psoriasis, which requires a dermatologist’s care.

For most people, though, using better moisturizers at optimal times should be sufficient.

“If your skin is dry, get it damp and seal in the moisture,” Dr. Ganz says.

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