If your biggest winter pet peeve isn’t Christmas music in November but rather flaky, dry skin, you’re not alone. No matter how many bottles of lotion you plow through, there comes a point every winter where the only suitable remedy calls for a newly purchased Diptyque candle and a piping-hot bath. But as we sit there soaking in a soothing pool of bubbly bliss, desperately trying to absorb every ounce of moisture possible, we’re actually doing more damage than good.
There are a few common reasons we suffer from dry skin come winter. For starters, we naturally tend to drink less water as the temperatures drop. And unless you have a quality humidifier pumping moisture into your home, staying huddled indoors with forced hot air is the equivalent of camping out in the desert for months. Of course, the lesser-known dry skin culprit is those long, hot showers and baths we look forward to at the end of a chilly day.
“People definitely take more baths in the winter—sometimes it’s all you can think about when the temperature drops below a certain level,” says Dr. Sarah Villafranco, CEO and founder of Osmia Organics, a Colorado-based natural skincare company known for their artisanal soaps. “But bathing in very hot water will strip more of your skin’s natural oil (or, sebum), causing it to feel dehydrated and possibly triggering increased oil production, body breakouts, and flaky skin conditions.”
As a physician and former ER doctor with a serious passion for plants, Villafranco’s search for conscious skincare ingredients is what would eventually lead her to her specialty: bath time.
“Look for products that contain ingredients you recognize and are scented with only essential oils, or even just the natural herbal ingredients themselves. It’s especially important in bath products because the warm water brings more blood to the surface of your skin, facilitating absorption,” she shares.
Ahead, we caught up with Villafranco to learn more about the chemicals to avoid for better skin (and better health), plus the ingredients to embrace in their place.
Avoid: Synthetic Fragrances
Part of the joy in taking a bath is the intoxicating scents that surround us. Unfortunately, the familiar smells that tell your brain “I’m clean” are the same ones that could be the cause of your red and flaky skin. The listed chemical to watch out for is toluene—a solvent that, according to the EPA, isn’t just used for synthetic fragrances but also inks, household cleaning agents, paint, and as a mix for gasoline.
Embrace: Plant Oils
In general, if an ingredient is good enough for your pantry, it should be safe enough for your bath. “Natural plant oils like olive, jojoba, and shea help replenish your skin’s oils and support a healthy barrier to water loss,” explains Villafranco.
Organic, essential oils sourced from nature—be it chamomile, lavender, or cedar—will give your skin the moisture it’s been craving while also fulfilling your cravings for fragrance. Villafranco loves adding a few pumps of Osmia’s Night Body Oil into the tub for added hydration.
Avoid: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Or in other words, suds. “Lots of bath products contain foaming agents that can be very drying to your skin, as well as synthetic fragrance and color,” shares Villafranco.
Sulfates can often be found in topical self-grooming products like soap, shampoo, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, and shaving cream. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), in particular, has been found to cause skin irritation and is a definite no-no for anyone with perioral dermatitis.
“Various kinds of milk, like buttermilk or coconut milk, have fats and acids that can gently exfoliate and smooth your skin,” she shares. Want silky smooth skin a la Cleopatra? The acids found in milk will help to gently scrub away dead skin cells to reveal a covetable glow. Our wellness editor, Kristin Limoges, is a big fan of goat milk–based products, like this antioxidant-rich soap bar.
Also used in many pesticides, phthalates act like estrogen in the body and disrupt our normal hormone cycles. For general health reasons, they’re best to avoid, as they’ve also been linked to breast cancer and thyroid dysfunction. You’ll find them typically used in the bathroom for soaps and lubricants to make them smell longer.
For swollen or irritated skin, Villafranco notes that oats can be an incredibly calming remedy. “They contain fats and saponins, which nourish the skin cells, and avenanthramides, which strengthen your skin through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity,” she explains.
To nourish itchy skin, drop one tea bag of this oat- and floral-based bath mix into running water.
Petroleum jelly and mineral oil are frequently used in personal care products to prevent water loss. Ingredients you’ll see listed might include propylene, ethylene, butadiene, and benzene. By nature, they’re designed to block the pores and increase the “spreadability” of a product, making it harder for skin to breathe and absorb moisture.
Embrace: Sea Salt
Part of the challenge of tackling dry skin is staying moisturized. Sea salt and Epsom salt will bring you one step closer to retaining liquid for as long as possible. “They help each individual skin cell retain water, plumping your skin and making it feel smooth and soft,” adds Villafranco.
Sprinkle in a dose of Follain’s detoxifying Magnesium Chloride flakes for a balanced, long-lasting treatment.
Avoid: Synthetic Dyes
“You know those amazing, bright blue bath bombs?” asks Villafranco. “Well, there’s nothing in nature that color, so you can be sure that bath bomb isn’t filled with nature’s bounty.”
While food coloring has been approved by the FDA for use in food, drug, and cosmetic products, Villafranco notes that most dyes are petroleum-based. While hot pink, fizzy bath bomb might make for a fun Sunday bath selfie, ultimately, the color doesn’t help to exfoliate or treat damaged skin and some environmental health scientists are beginning to question their toxicity, according to Villafranco.
Calendula, also known as marigold, in either its pure flower form or as an extract has long been prized for its antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. When it comes to the skin, it’s proven to be especially healing for people with eczema.
“Calendula helps repair oxidative damage and prevent further oxidative stress. Essentially, it makes your skin a little more resilient to the real (harsh and wintery) world,” says Villafranco.
Specifically formulated for calming sensitive skin, once you pop out of the bath, lather up with Pai’s calming Calendula body cream.
Now that you’re armed with the proper bathtime essentials, you can soak easy knowing that you’re in for a healing and hydrating swim. And as long as you don’t have a problem with turning a little pruney, you won’t have to worry about how much time you actually spend soaking.
“The warm water relaxes your muscles and causes you to slow down and take time for your own well-being, so stay in as long as you can. Also, if you’re going to soak for a while, make sure you have a large glass of water and sip on it during your bath.”
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