Keep Your Skin Hydrated This Winter

There are few things that can bring shame to my family quite like dry skin.

Sure, dry skin can affect anyone, but the more melanin you have the more obvious the problem is.

Black people dislike dry skin so much that we have a word to describe this shameful aesthetic condition: ashiness.

I was raised to comply to the sacred ritual of liberally moisturising my clean skin with a cocoa butter lotion. I vividly recall the day, in high school, when I decided to skip this step, only for my mother to catch sight of the patches of visibly white skin on my knees and elbows before I left the house for the day.

Before she even said a word, I knew I wasn't going anywhere until I was fully moisturised from top to toe. Never mind that I'd be late for school.

"Make sure you get your knuckles as well," I remember her saying as she watched me moisturise in case I dared to leave the house with dry skin.

Since that day, I can honestly say my worst nightmare is leaving the house with dry, ashy skin. But winter always leaves me with dry skin, and despite my take-no-prisoners approach to moisturising, I've had to accept that ashiness is somewhat unavoidable in cooler climes — or so I thought.

The differences between darker and lighter skin

Santilla Chingaipe, a woman of colour who finds it hard to find makeup to match her skin tone, poses in front of a brick wall
Image Santilla Chingaipe knows the perils of dry skin and is finding out how to put an end to it.(Supplied: Santilla Chingaipe)

John Su is a dermatologist and Adjunct Professor at Eastern Health at Monash University in Melbourne. With a special research interest in eczema and dry skin, I put my ashiness-related queries to him.

He says differences in skin based on ethnicity do exist and they range from the constitution of the skin itself to immune responses in the skin.


"We know there are certain proteins that can contribute to dryness, as well as the content of the lipid layers of the skin, and that differs between ethnic groups," Professor Su says.

"Presumably there are different proteins which are affected in darker skin types and in different ethnic groups. And there are also different immune responses in the skin between skin of colour and fair skin."

Although the visibly grey and white colouring associated with dry skin is more noticeable in people with darker skin tones, dry skin is a problem that affects us all regardless of skin tone, and it tends to be worse in the colder months.

Why does winter make it harder to stay hydrated?

Dr Su says there are many reasons for this — including environmental differences between seasons.

"There may be some humidity and temperature differences, and indoor artificial climates as well. [For example] The use of heating indoors or sitting too close to vents or fireplaces," he says.


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Taking long, hot showers can also cause dryness in skin.


"Water is the most common irritant and that itself can strip the skin of oils and increase dryness," he says.

Certain types of clothing and bed wear can also contribute to dryness.

How can we banish dry skin, I hear you ask?

Step one: avoid things that dry the skin. That includes taking shorter showers (which is also great for the environment) and use water that isn't as hot.

Step two: avoid detergents and soaps. Or, at the least, look for soaps and body washes that don't dry your skin.

If a product doesn't specifically state 'soap-free', there's a few things to look out for. Soap is created by mixing an animal or vegetable fat with caustic soda. So you can tell if a product is soap-based by looking at its ingredient list. For example, soaps made from olive oil will be labelled sodium olivate, and tallow becomes sodium tallowate. Non-soap cleansers will generally list chemicals like sodium lauryl sulfate or the gentler ammonium laureth sulfate and sodium alkyl sulfate instead.


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Step three: moisturise. But which moisturisers work best? Look out for moisturisers that contain glycerine or liquid paraffin, Dr Su recommends. Or if you use expensive moisturisers, look for ceramides which duplicate the natural oils found in skin.

"Most people are fearful when they hear soft paraffin or liquid paraffin, and ask if it's safe, but those products have been used for many years and tested for a long time and at high levels of purification," says Dr Su.

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What about natural oils?

Before you raid your kitchen pantry to grab oils, like coconut oil, to protect your skin from the elements, make sure you read on.

"There are favourable studies with coconut oil. Other oils are a bit more controversial, like olive oil. Some studies have found that some forms of olive oil, especially those of low quality, can actually damage the barrier of the skin rather than repair it," says Dr Su.

"We do know that a number of fragranced oils and oils based on plant products can be potential allergens as well.

"Most dermatologists won't tend to recommend products with plant products — or what some people may consider to be 'natural' but don't realise that natural proteins can sometimes sensitise your skin and give you an allergy."

Now there's no reason to have dry skin this winter.

This is general information only. For detailed personal advice, you should see a qualified medical practitioner who knows your medical history.

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