This polar vortex business can really get a girl down.
Seriously, if you don't have to be in North America right now, don't come. We're living through some freakish snap of cold weather (think: a toasty -27C here in Toronto on Monday) and it does NOT do good things for your skin. Don't like chapped lips? How about a chapped face?
But we do what we can. Today, I'm sharing my winter skincare regimen—the polar vortex edition. (Or "polar pig," if you prefer.) I've got 10 tips for maximum moisturization/minimal discomfort, plus I'm listing my current favourite wintertime products. Pull up a chair, it's a long one.
1. Switch to a soap-free, non-foaming cleanser
I LOVE the feeling of a squeaky-clean face. A good lather with a foaming or gel face wash is so darn satisfying. But I make sure not to use these types of cleansers in the colder months, because they make my skin feel tight within minutes of rinsing them off—not good.
The reason is because foamy, lathering cleaners have an alkaline pH, whereas our skin's pH is acidic. That means their alkalinity can strip away your skin's acid mantle, which is the barrier that protects it from drying out as well as the elements and bacterial invaders.
Soap-free, non-lathering cleansers have a neutral pH, so they don't disturb the acidic pH of your skin and are much less drying. Plus, it's completely psychological that they aren't cleaning as well—you don't need foam to get the dirt off. (It's just like sulfate-free shampoos, which take some getting used to.)
It's actually a good idea to use a soap-free cleanser year-round, not just in winter. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the best thing is to treat your skin like it's sensitive, even if it's not.
Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel is one of my favourite cleaners, and it's suitable for even oily skin types, without being drying. It's a gel texture and is slightly exfoliating (thanks to papaya and grapefruit extracts); I also like the minimal ingredients list.
Dermalogica's Ultra Calming Cleanser is another good one. It's more of a gel-cream texture, so it's even more moisturizing. They say you can either rinse or tissue off; I suggest rinsing to be sure you've removed all the gunk.
I also like Philosophy Purity Made Simple, which is a creamy liquid that emulsifies dirt and oil to get skin clean without foam.
At the drugstore, I think Spectro Derm is the best choice. It's specifically formulated with a neutral pH and without potentially irritating ingredients.
Another idea is to not cleanse the traditional way at all. I am a Bioderma Sensibio H2O (also known as Crealine H2O) fanatic. It's a micellar—meaning waterless—cleanser, a clear, watery liquid that you apply to your face on a cotton pad, preferably the Shiseido ones, which are the best ever. It feels just like water and does a crazy-good job of removing all traces of makeup, even the waterproof kind, without irritating your skin in the slightest. I've used it many a time on its own to wash my face before bed, and it's what makeup artists all use backstage to clean the models' skin in between all the shows, since it won't cause irritation.
I know cleansing balms are big right now, but I'm not a huge fan unless you're able to remove every trace of the oil afterward. If it's left sitting on your skin, it creates a barrier that won't allow any skincare products you put on top, like your serum and moisturizer, to get in. Plus, you know how I feel about oil in general.
2. Include some gentle exfoliation
You might think you should skip your exfoliation step during the winter, but it's not true. I agree about backing off from anything too aggressive and drying, but a little mild exfoliation can actually help dry skin. This is because it removes the build-up of dead skin cells that are blocking the moisturizing ingredients from getting through.
Sensitive skin does best with fruit enzymes, which are the most gentle. They're already in the Mario Badescu cleanser I mentioned above, or you could try the Jurlique Fruit Enzyme Exfoliator, which has amazing reviews.
If your skin is more resilient, you can try acids. Lactic acid is my favourite as it's again, quite gentle. I've mentioned this Philosophy cleanser/mask before, and I'm still loving it. You could use it as a mask a few times a week, or alternate it every few days with your regular, more moisturizing cleanser.
Personally, I find glycolic acid toners a bit too harsh for me in the winter, but I do like the idea of an exfoliating moisturizer that does everything in a one step. NeoStrata Smoothing Cream is cream with glycolic that comes in Level 1, 2 and 3 strengths. While it can tingle a bit, it really does work.
There is also the option of a manual exfoliation. I find the classic Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant gentle but effective.
Or if you've been reading this blog forever, you may remember me singing the praises of the Éminence Citrus Exfoliating Wash, which has silica beads to do the exfoliation, plus lime juice, grapefruit peel and shea butter. This stuff is heaven in a bottle, people. Smells so good, it's unbelievable. It could be a daily cleanser for summer, or try it a few times a week during the wintertime as your exfoliator.
3. Add moisture with your toner
Toner isn't a necessary step, but I think it's a nice one. The benefit of using a toner—a moisturizing toner, in the wintertime–is that it returns your skin's pH back to normal after cleansing. It also helps to remove every last trace of dirt, makeup, oil or dead skin cells.
And here's another cool benefit. Did you know that moist skin is better at absorbing active ingredients than dry skin? If you recall our "how to apply Retin-A" discussion, that's one reason derms recommend you apply it on dry skin—so it's less irritating.
But for winter, when we want maximum absorption of hydrators, it's a good idea to put on your serum or moisturizer while your skin is still damp from the toner. (If you're using Retin-A, then you should still wait 20 to 30 minutes before applying it.)
I recently discovered another Bioderma gem, the Hydrabio Moisturizing Toning Lotion. Specifically for sensitive, dehydrated skin, it's supposed to "re-train" the skin to retain moisture. I don't know about that, but it will definitely get rid of any tight feeling after cleansing.
If you don't want to invest in a moisturizing toner, you can also get the moisturizer-absorption benefits by just spritzing with a face mist before you apply your serum and/or moisturizer. My current choice is Caudalie's Beauty Elixir, which smells SO good:
4. Layer on a hydrating serum
Just call me Serum Girl. I love 'em. Always have, always will. A quick re-cap on why: Serums, because of their liquidy format, can hold a higher percentage of actives than a moisturizer can. So they're a great way to get more skincare benefits in, by layering one (or more) underneath your regular moisturizer.
My hydrating serum of choice, which I always mention, is Consonant HydrExtreme. It has just two ingredients—glycerine and Cassia Angustifolia seed extract—and it outperforms hyaluronic acid in terms of long-lasting hydration.
Another hydrating serum I've recently discovered is the Jurlique Herbal Recovery Advanced Serum (really loving Jurlique right now). It's more of a thin, gel-cream texture compared to HydrExtreme's watery feel, and has a wonderful botanical scent.
You can mix and match your serums, and one other I like to throw in there sometimes for winter-ravaged skin is SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Gel, which is anti-inflammatory, calming and soothing.
5. Lock in moisture with a cream
Now we get to the moisturizer part. There are three types of moisturizing ingredients:
- Humectants attract and hold on to water. Examples are glycerin and hyaluronic acid. You want these ingredients to be closest to your skin—that's why I like them in serums, as the first layer.
- Emollients are skin softeners that sink in and help bind cells together, making your skin feel more smooth and comfortable. Examples are jojoba oil and shea butter.
- Occlusives block the water in your skin from evaporating. Examples include petroleum jelly, mineral oil and lanolin. You want to make sure your occlusive layer (say, a face oil or oil-based moisturizer) comes last, since it does the job of locking in the moisture.
Make sense? Most moisturizers have a combination of these ingredients, so you don't have to worry too much, but where it's important is if you use anything oily—oils should always come last.
The moisturizer I'm using right now is Dr Roebuck's Pure (full review here), which does a great job of locking in moisture and is specifically designed for sensitive, reactive skin. It's the best "bland" moisturizer I've found.
I also really like the ingredients in Korres Greek Yoghurt Moisturizing Face Cream, which I found soothing and nourishing without being greasy.
My sister-in-law swears by Kiehl's Ultra Facial Cream, a 24-hour moisturizer designed specifically to protect skin from harsh, cold weather conditions. HELLO.
If you want to super-charge your moisturizing routine, and you like face oils, you can apply one of those on top.
6. Treat your skin to an overnight facial
Have you heard about this new category of skincare products? They're calling them overnight masks or overnight facials, and they work while you sleep to deliver an extra boost of hydration to your skin—supposedly more than a normal moisturizer would. I don't know about that, but I love them all the same. Skin just looks better the more moisture you give it.
Origins Drink Up Intensive Overnight Mask is my top pick—I just love how it smells. It has a creamy texture that leaves your skin super-soft in the morning. (It also now comes in a 10-minute quickie version.)
Clinique Moisture Surge is also a good choice; it's oil-free and feels very lightweight.
Perhaps the best overnight treatment of all is Elemental Herbology's Biodynamic Facial Soufflé—a soufflé for your face!—which has the most incredible thick, rich (yet non-greasy) texture. It's also on sale right now!
7. Or do a moisturizing mask once or twice a week
If an overnight treatment isn't your thing, you can do masking the traditional way. As I outlined here, it's important to add this "food for the skin" after you've done your exfoliation, to make sure nothing is blocking the ingredients from getting in.
Dr. Hauschka's Moisturizing Mask is a creamy, natural option:
And my aesthetician says Dermalogica Multivitamin Power Recovery is her go-to:
8. Use a lip balm that actually works
So many lip balms out there just aren't... balmy enough. They could be fine for summer, but right now, especially in Canada, we need the hard-core stuff that wards off chapping.
I have tried a kajillion lip balms over the years, but only a few stand out. In the niche market, my all-time fave is still Clark's Botanicals. It's also available in tinted format, but I don't find that version as rich as the clear.
Coming in a close second is By Terry Baume de Rose, which is a bit less liquid (hence the pot format instead of the tube) and has a rose scent. It's a cult favourite for a reason.
A recent addition to my lip roster is the Marc Jacobs Beauty Lip Lock Moisture Balm, which is more hygienic than a pot and in a chic lipstick-like case—great for your purse.
At the drugstore, the new Nivea Lip Butters are excellent:
9. Beat dry skin straight out of the shower
Remember how I just said you get better results when you put your moisturizer on damp skin? Well, the same goes for the skin on your body—as I'm sure you've heard before. You want to apply your body cream straight out of the shower, so keep it in the bathroom (as even the walk to your bedroom can make the water on your skin evaporate). This is especially important if you're applying a body oil instead of a cream, so that it at least locks in some moisture underneath.
The classic choice in this category is Kiehl's Creme de Corps, which really is a happy-making moisturizer. Buttery-yellow, rich texture, fast dry-down, leaving you with intensely soft skin.
Good old CeraVe is not to be underestimated... it's cheap and effective.
I also like to use Weleda Skin Food as a spot-treatment on any random dry bits, like feet or elbows—heck, I even put it on my face sometimes. (I get this annoying, weird dryness on the tip of my nose.)
One more tip for your body. Try and shave your legs every once in a while if you can. I find it's the only thing that can really get rid of that layer of scaly skin on my shins—exfoliating scrubs and loofahs don't do it. Once I get it off, it's so much easier to nourish my skin with one of the above treatments.
10. Nourish hands, nails and cuticles
Ugh, chapped, rough hands are the worst. Nails tend to look like crap in winter, too, because they don't get enough moisture—leaving you with dry, ragged cuticles (I'm sure you've been scolded by your manicure lady like I have).
I also like Clarins Hand and Nail Treatment a lot, and it's specifically meant to strengthen nails.
My mother is obsessed beyond belief with Bliss High Intensity Hand Cream, which has a mouth-watering citrus scent:
At the drugstore, a reliable choice is Neutrogena's Norwegian Formula:
Plus, don't forget cuticle butters or creams for extra nail care. I'm currently loving the Dior Creme Abricot, which is a delight to use. Look how pretty:
Stay tuned for my next winter post, which will be all about the best moisturizing makeup!
Shop the products
Cleansers, exfoliators and toners:
Serums and moisturizers:
Masks and overnight masks:
Body and hand creams:
Have your say
How do you switch up your skincare routine in the winter?
What are your favourite cold-weather products?
Have you checked out any of these ones yet?