Like many people, over the past year and half I’ve found a long, hot shower to be a soothing and grounding escape from reality: Slip in. Lather up. While away the minutes (or, erm, hour). Step out feeling new.
In fact, the post-hot shower feeling has been so euphoric, I’ve ignored the clear-as-day signs of my subsequently unhappy skin—redness, tightness, and itchiness from head to toe. But as the cold months set in, my dry, sensitive skin becomes more vulnerable (and the temptation to turn the dial all the way up looms), I’m determined to find a better balance between a comforting shower and maintaining the health of my skin. Ask any dermatologist and they’ll tell you: that mission begins with the right shower temperature—especially this time of year. Here, New York dermatologist Robert Anolik talks through the best bathing and skin-care habits to keep your skin soft, smooth, and glowing through winter.
So, What Is the Ideal Shower Temperature?
“Luke warm,” says Anolik. Many experts agree the tepid temperature feels slightly warm compared to your body temperature, and falls somewhere between 98º and 105º F.
Avoiding searing hot temperatures is important because they can compromise the skin’s moisture barrier, which affects the look, feel, and overall health of the skin. “The skin barrier is made up of skin proteins and oils that prevent water from evaporating out of the skin, protecting it from the outside world,” explains Anolik. “It is one of our first lines of defense against infection and pollution.”
Hot water is irritating to the skin surface in more ways than one. “It causes inflammation that can lead to the disruption of the normal skin barrier,” says Anolik. “Furthermore, such high water temperatures can also wash away natural skin oils which are so important for retaining moisture.”
How Does the Cold Weather Affect Things?
“As temperatures become colder outside, moisture evaporates from the air, encouraging evaporation of moisture from our skin surface,” explains Anolik, adding that cold winds dry out the skin further. Of course, this creates a conundrum: the colder it is outside, the warmer you want your shower feel. “Very hot showers are more popular in the winter when we enjoy countering the cold outside feeling, but when you combine the dry cold air outside with hot water in the showers, you’re doubly weakening the skin barrier and yielding drier, less attractive skin,” he says.
How Does Cleansing Factor In?
A proper cleansing routine is as important as shower temperature when it comes to healthy, moisturized skin. The most important thing to know? Cleansing with a harsh soap can dry out the skin, stripping its natural oils and healthy bacteria. “In terms of basic chemistry, true soaps are fatty acid salts,” explains Anolik. “These effectively wash away sebum and dirt, but they have a high pH between 9 to 10, which is much higher than the natural pH of skin which is at around 5.4. True soaps have a great role in cleansing truly dirty, contaminated skin—think coal mine worker—but for day to day use, it’s generally unnecessary.” Because of this pH difference, the skin barrier is disrupted. Instead, you should reach for gentle, pH-balanced cleansers. “These have a pH much closer to skin (5.5-7) and are therefore much better tolerated in the shower,” says Anolik.
What’s the Best Way to Keep Skin Hydrated Post-Shower?
When you step out of the shower, it’s important to pat dry to avoid irritation. Within a minute of pat drying, moisturizer should be applied, instructs Anolik. In terms of choosing the right body moisturizer, there are two major categories to consider: humectants and emollients (also known as occlusives). “Humectant moisturizers draw water to the surface skin and include wonderful ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin,” he explains. “These are more breathable and are unlikely to cause acne breakouts.” As a general rule of thumb, lotions are lighter weight and creams are heavier, and the former should be used on particularly dry skin if not moving on to an emollient. “When needed, an emollient, which traps water in the skin, can be used,” says Anolik, noting that they tend to be relatively greasy and are often petroleum jelly based. “These are great options for the arms and legs in the colder months with very dry skin.”
Another important facet of skin cleansing and hydration is age. “The ability to maintain moisture and healthy-appearing skin diminishes [with age], and this is often first realized as fall/winter skin care becomes more challenging,” explains Anolik. “This is largely because at a biological level, our skin’s ability to form what’s known as ‘natural moisturizing factor’ or ‘NMF’ is reduced. Consequently, the outer layer of our skin dries, loses stretch ability, and forms small cracks that lead to a rough, dull, flaky surface.” This is all to say, building a healthier bathing and cleansing routine becomes more crucial with time, and can pay dividends for healthy skin in the long run.