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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 your 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 on body oil,” Dr. Ganz says, “but that doesn’t moisturize 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. Too much scratching or dryness can make the skin 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 she says you probably don’t need to splurge unless your goals are cosmetic or anti-aging. 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 of key ones to look for:

  • Ceramides are a type of lipidgood 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 sugar that binds water, but you lose it as you age, 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 messes 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.”

She says overcleaning your skin can also be drying. 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.

However, using better moisturizers at optimal times should be sufficient for most people.

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

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