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Massage Today
December, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 12

Your Clients’ Winter Skin

By Rita Woods, LMT

What can I do about it? In the winter months, this is the question most often asked by my clients. They are talking about their dry and sometimes cracked skin. The skin is the first barrier of defense against millions of bacteria, viruses, molds and fungus. The skin is like the walls of a fortress that protect the interior from invading armies. Intact, healthy skin is vital to our overall health. As a therapist, I always keep extra lotion on hand during the winter because the client's skin will suck it up like a sponge.

Skin is our domain. We see it and touch it on every client. We use it to get to muscles, ligaments, fascia and all that lies underneath it. Just think about it - we work muscles and soft tissue, but never actually get to touch it. We make contact with our target muscles by using the skin. It's important that we offer advice, suggestions and services that will assist our clients, as they depend on us for information. Let's face it, we probably see more skin on a person than their spouse or partner.

Let's first look at why the skin becomes dryer in the winter months. Low humidity is the main cause. The air around us is more dry, so the moisture is wicked out of our body and we receive virtually no moisture from our environment. Other factors contribute to dry skin but dry air will exacerbate an existing problem. When you think about dry skin, you should have two objectives in mind: first, getting moisture into the cells, and second, keeping it there.

One thing you can do is to work with the air around you. Add some moisture to it. When I was a kid I remember my mom putting containers of water on the vents in the floor. She was adding moisture back into the air. That was our humidifier. Grandma had a wood stove and always had a cast-iron tea kettle simmering on the stove. Again, moisture back into the air. In addition to keeping our skin moist and cutting down on static electricity, moist air retains heat better.

If you are dehydrated, drinking more water can help. However, recent studies suggest people who are adequately hydrated do not receive any additional skin benefit from drinking more water.

Now let's look at topical applications. We call these moisturizers, with hand and body lotions being the most commonly used products. There are three types of basic moisturizers. One puts moisture in, one prevents moisture from escaping, and one makes the skin feel smoother. Individual skin varies, so trial and error may be necessary to find the right combination. It's chemistry that make these work, so I'll give you ingredients to look for. There are many substances in each category, but these most often appear in over-the-counter lotions.

Humectants. This is a classification of moisturizer that penetrates the stratum corneum, the top layer of skin, and helps absorb moisture. Humectants are popular in anti-aging products since skin dries out more as we age. The common ingredients in this category include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, panthenol, propylene glycol and sorbitol.

Occlusives. This category works by coating the top layer of the skin to decrease evaporation. Common substances with occlusive properties include lanolin, stearic acid, cetyl alcohol, caprylic/capric triglyceride, mineral oil and petrolatum. I can already hear the moans about using mineral oil or petrolatum. But keep in mind that for many people, their hands, fingers and feet will actually crack and bleed. This is a most unhealthy condition and can be quite painful as well. In this case, they may want to use grandma's beauty secret of smearing a white petroleum product, like Vaseline, on their hands and then donning a pair of white gloves before going to bed.

Emollients. Emollients soften and smooth skin texture. Common substances with emollient properties include cyclomethicone, dimethicone, isopropyl myristate, octyl extenuate, isopropyl palmitate, isopropyl isostearate and jojoba oil.

By knowing the action of different ingredients, you and your client will have the ability to make better decisions about winter skin care. But there is still more that can be done. The skin has a layer of lipids that is vital to healthy skin. This natural lipid component can be stripped away with soaps, harsh cleansers and even hot water. At the very least, try using warm rather than hot water for showering. After showering, pat dry and while the skin is moist, but not wet, apply your lotion; especially a moisturizer or lotion with humectant properties. This can draw moisture from the surface into the skin.

Exfoliates. A lotion or moisturizer works more effectively when the skin is free from dead surface cells. For best results in the winter, use a good nonabrasive exfoliator that contains its own moisturizing properties. A salt scrub may be helpful but can also be drying to winter skin.

The skin is the largest organ of the body and deserves quality care. For many people, winter care may require measures that go beyond their normal routine. Skin care problems should be viewed as any other acute or chronic health issue and be addressed accordingly. The use of products or ingredients that you may normally avoid could be your best defense. I had a friend tell me that when her hands start to crack, she uses grandma's Vasoline-and-gloves regime. She sees it as medicine: It's not to be taken all the time, but she is grateful for it when there is a problem.

Click here for previous articles by Rita Woods, LMT.


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