The Ultimate Winter Skincare Guide for Darker Skin Tones

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Win the war against the season’s ashy wrath.

By Sumiko Wilson

Date December 16, 2021

Winter and dry skin just go together. The pairing may be unpleasant, but it’s perennial. Kind of like Tom and Shiv on Succession or Fitz and Olivia on Scandal. As the enfant terrible of the skincare world, chilly weather tends to unearth issues that otherwise get literally glossed over by summer’s dew. By the time the first snow falls, there’s often a new emergence of cracked lips and skin so dry that it can be likened to a chalkboard. Winter is a universal adversary against hydration, but it’s particularly pressing for darker skin tones, on whom these skincare issues can be more pronounced.

We all feel winter’s ashy wrath, but you’re more likely to actually see it on deeper hues. “In melanin-rich skin there can be increased water loss from the epidermis along with a faster rate of shedding these layers of skin,” explains NYC-based dermatologist and 4.5.6 Melanin Skincare founder Dr. Carlos Charles. “When taken all together, these factors contribute to what is often colloquially termed ‘ashy skin,’ which will typically get worse in the frigid winter months.”

There obviously isn’t a one-size skincare solution for all people of colour, but to build our winter skincare cheat sheet for darker skin tones, we tapped Dr. Charles and esthetician Orica Smart, owner of Ajax-based skin clinic The O Spot, to answer our top-of-mind q’s.

Are some ingredients more winter-friendly than others?

Knowing which ingredients to look out for comes down to understanding what our skin is lacking in the winter. “Black skin and Asian skin doesn’t naturally produce a lot of ceramides, which are natural fats that protect our outer layer of skin.” Smart explains. This ceramide deficit is what’s to blame for the dryness that tends to rear its head from December onward.

To make up for this loss of protection, Smart recommends not only reaching for products rich in ceramides, but also hyaluronic acid, squalene and glycerin. Steer clear of lactic, glycolic and salicylic acids, as these blemish-destroyers can be too drying for daily winter use.

“Exfoliation can still play a role in your winter skincare routine, however you should keep it to a minimum as it can lead to dry, irritated and inflamed skin,” says Smart. It’s all about smart doses of gentle exfoliants when it comes to BHAs and AHAs. These, paired with mild enzymatic exfoliators, can buff away dead skin without disturbing your skin’s equilibrium or leaving you vulnerable to the elements.

Do I need to swap out my usual cleanser?

“Ditch the over-drying, water-based gel cleansers,” Dr. Charles says. I know — over-drying and water-based don’t sound like qualities that belong in the same sentence. Here’s the thing: water-based cleansers draw out water-based impurities like sweat and sebum, but they don’t replace what they remove. Instead, Dr. Charles recommends opting for something lighter with more lipids and less water. “A gentle, creamy cleanser will help to restore and maintain the skin barrier,” he says. If you have oily skin that’s prone to breakouts, look for ingredients such as cucumber extract and tea tree oil, which will keep sebum overproduction at bay without leaving your skin feeling stripped.

How can I step up my moisture game?

“The biggest concern as we enter the winter months is moisture retention,” Dr. Charles says. “As melanin-rich skin becomes dry, it also can become inflamed and sensitive. This is a perfect storm for darker skin tones as the inflammation can result in hyperpigmentation.” No, thank you. Since dry skin triggers this domino effect, sealing in hydration is key. Providing a barrier for your skin during the winter months is the best practice for deeper complexions because, as Dr. Charles puts it, “melanin-rich skin is more prone to trans-epidermal water loss, which is when we lose water through the outermost layer of our skin.”

For POC, childhood memories of being slathered in Vaseline or shea butter may no longer be a thing of the past (we’ve been serving glazed donut skin before glazed donut skin was ever a thing.) “Those are legitimate protectants and they’re great for winter, especially if you’re going to be spending a lot of time outside,” says Smart. “They protect our skin barrier, so they work to bounce dust and pollution off your face. While they won’t actually nourish the skin, they do seal in moisture.”

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