Winter Skin Guide
Head-to-toe tips for cold-weather skin care
Our skin acts as a buffer to the cold winter air, and while some of it may not be visible under layers of sweaters, socks, and coats, it’s still important to take good care of your largest organ.
That goes double for people with diabetes. Chronic high blood glucose can up the risk of bacterial and fungal infections, says Angela Lamb, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City. That’s why it’s particularly important for people with diabetes to minimize cracks from dry skin on the hands and feet, which can open the door for harmful germs to enter the body.
What’s the key to maintaining healthy skin? “Staying well moisturized and using gentle products,” says Margaret Parsons Sander, MD, FAAD, a Sacramento dermatologist and associate clinical professor in the Department of Dermatology at the University of California–Davis. Follow these tips to keep your skin happy and healthy when the temperature drops.
You can cover up most of your body, but your face is usually left out in the cold. And that can lead to major dryness. Parsons Sander recommends using a moisturizer with sunscreen to protect your skin. The sun’s rays are just as likely to burn you and lead to sun damage during the winter as they are in the summertime, so put on an SPF 30 or higher before you leave the house.
“When we have that layer of moisturizer on our skin, it’s actually protecting our skin from that coldness [and windiness] and helps it not dry out as much,” Parsons Sander says. You’ll want to moisturize after washing your face in the morning and at night, says Lamb.
Because they’re exposed to the elements, the lips are especially prone to drying and cracking. Lip emollients with few ingredients (to prevent irritation) are your best bet to keep them from getting chapped, says Parsons Sander. Look for ingredients such as petroleum jelly, mineral oil, or shea butter, and avoid products that have herbal ingredients or chemicals, which can irritate the lips, she says. Plain old Vaseline is a good option, says Lamb.
What’s the best way to protect your hands from the cold? Cover ’em. Invest in gloves and mittens for both warmth and protection from the drying, chapping wind. Outdoors and in, moisturize regularly. Creams generally work better than lotions, says Parsons Sander. Top moisture-locking ingredients include petroleum jelly, mineral oil, glycerin, and shea butter. Parsons Sander recommends hand creams by Eucerin, Neutrogena, and Cetaphil. No moisturizing cream on hand? Try an oil from the kitchen, such as olive, canola, or coconut. They’re all more moisturizing than lotion.
Keep several tubes of hand cream around the house, says Parsons Sander. Stash one by your bed, another in the bathroom, and a third by the kitchen sink. This way, you can put some on easily throughout the day and protect your hands.
Finger pricks are a necessary part of blood glucose checks, and while dry skin won’t affect your ability to get an accurate reading, it can affect you in other ways: Dry skin can lead to a buildup of cells on the surface of the skin. As a result, skin may be thicker, which can make it difficult to get a blood sample. That can lead to repeated pricks, which can irritate the skin. “The finger pricks do cause small wounds,” says Parsons Sander. “Using hand creams to help skin heal is a good idea.” Avoid creams with fragrances if you plan to check your blood glucose soon—they can lead to inaccurate readings. Skip the alcohol swab because it can dry out the skin, but do wash and dry hands before pricking.
The majority of your skin may be toasty under sweaters and jeans but it’s still affected by the cold temperatures. Here are some ways to keep hidden skin in tip-top shape:
- Reduce itch. People with diabetes may be prone to itchier skin than those without because of yeast infections, dryness, and poor circulation—conditions that can result from chronic high blood glucose. Cold air with low humidity zaps moisture from the skin, making the itch more severe, says Parsons Sander. Don’t scratch: You might break the skin, which raises the risk for infection. Instead, keep skin hydrated with moisturizing body washes and after-shower moisturizers. Opt for unscented—fragrances can irritate the skin, too. Stick with brands such as Aquaphor or Albolene, Parsons Sander says. To fight itchiness, consider taking antihistamines, which are safe and don’t react with other medications. You may think antihistamines are just for allergies, but most itchiness is due to histamine reactions in the body, so the medications will also help with itch, says Parsons Sander. Anti-itch creams are another option, says Lamb, but be careful about the ingredients. “Creams with lactic [acid] or ammonium lactate can be very irritating if the skin has cracks,” she says.
- Curb infection. When you’re wearing a lot of layers, parts of the body with skin folds, such as under the breasts, in the groin, and between the toes, tend to be moist and sweaty, which can promote yeast infections, says Lamb. “Be aware where you have those skin folds and keep those areas a little drier,” says Parsons Sander. You can use an antifungal powder to prevent yeast from growing.
- Cool down. Skip the piping-hot shower and opt for warm water instead. Too much heat dries out and irritates skin. Too-hot showers will also make your skin itch more.
Poor circulation, a common issue for people with diabetes, causes some unexpected problems for skin. Both it and nerve damage, peripheral neuropathy, can contribute to a lack of sweating in the feet, which in turn can cause dryness. “Skin with poor circulation needs more TLC and extra moisturizing,” says Parsons Sander.
Even more problematic: winter shoes and socks that don’t fit well. People with nerve damage may have a loss of sensation in the feet. If you experience this, you may not know you’re developing a blister until it becomes infected. To prevent blisters, calluses, and other abrasions from forming in the first place, Parsons Sander recommends wearing properly fitted shoes or boots. Choosing the right socks is also important. Breathable fabrics such as wool or moisture-wicking materials will keep your feet from getting sweaty. “Consider using a prophylactic antifungal powder in the shoes to prevent infection,” says Lamb.
The same logic that applies to skin folds applies here. Keep the area between the toes a bit drier than other parts of the body to prevent fungal infections. And don’t moisturize between the toes.
In the Home
During winter, consider using a humidifier to keep some moisture in the air. This can prevent your skin from becoming overly dry. Follow safety precautions if you have pets or small children in the home—humidifiers are potential fire hazards.
There is nothing better or more moisturizing about products labeled specifically for people with diabetes. “I would hope they are good emollient products,” says Parsons Sander, “but it’s more of a marketing thing.”
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