We usually associate skin problems with the summer months, but the cold, wet British winter can play havoc with skin too.
The skin is the largest organ of the body and is made up of two main layers – the outer epidermis and the inner dermis. Cells in the deepest layer of the epidermis divide to make new cells that are pushed towards the surface to replace existing cells that wear off and flake away.
Healthy skin is covered in a thin layer of fatty lipids that lock in moisture and keep skin smooth and supple, but winter’s colder temperatures and low humidity mean the air across the UK becomes dry and makes some skin conditions worse. Additionally, lifestyle choices and washing habits also remove these fatty oils, leaving skin unprotected and exacerbating skin complaints.
Common skin conditions
A bit lippy
Winter weather can be hard on the delicate skin of the lips, leaving them chapped, cracked, sore and prone to cold sores and other infections.
Regular application of a moisturising lip salve will help improve the natural barrier function of the skin on the lips and reduce the drying effects of harsh winter weather.
Cold sores – small blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus that develop on the lips or around the mouth – usual start as a burning or stinging pain at the affected site, followed by pink bumps and small blisters which dry and crust over. They usually clear up within seven to 10 days without treatment, but over-the-counter (OTC) antiviral creams can ease symptoms and speed up healing time if applied as soon as the first signs of a cold sore appear.
Fun in the (winter) sun
In the UK we tend to think about sun protection in the spring and summer months since the sun’s UV radiation is stronger during these times of year. However, while this is true of UVB (which causes sunburn) it’s UVA (which causes skin ageing) that we need to be mindful of during winter, since up to 95 per cent of UV radiation that reaches the earth’s surface is UVA and remains pretty consistent all year round.
“Sun safety is really important as sunburn can happen at any time of the year,” says Dr Hilary Jones, TV medic and advisor to Japanese skincare range Hada Labo. “What’s more, skin cancer is very much on the increase, and we are not safe just because we are in the UK. There are 16,744 new cases of melanoma skin cancer in the UK every year and 2,333 deaths, with melanoma the fifth most common cancer in the UK. Yet 86 per cent of these deaths could be prevented, as studies show most of us don’t apply sufficient sun screen or apply it often enough or early enough before exposure to the sun.”
This means pharmacy teams are well placed to advise customers how to reduce their risk of skin cancer by raising awareness of the importance of all-year-round sun protection – with the following top tips from Kathryn Clifford, co-founder of skin cancer education charity Skcin:
- Cover up with clothing. This is our first line of defence against UV radiation. This is much easier in the winter months. However, our scalp, face, neck and hands are often still exposed and are common places for skin cancer to develop so wearing a hat and gloves will provide further protection
- Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin. Skcin recommends a minimum SPF 30 with UVA protection (ideally rated four or five stars). Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before venturing outside and reapply every two hours if spending prolonged periods of time outdoors
- Wear good quality sunglasses. Our eyes are up to 10 times more sensitive to UV damage than our skin, so wearing sunglasses on bright days all year round will not only protect eyes, but the delicate skin around them
- Take extra care if you’re a winter sports enthusiast. UV rays can be just as damaging on the ski slopes as they are on a hot, sunny beach because UV radiation increases by approximately 10 per cent with every 1,000m in altitude and snow reflects up to 80 per cent of UV, thereby significantly increasing its intensity
- Check your skin. From top to toe, once a month for signs of any new, unusual or changing spots, moles, freckles or marks and to seek immediate professional advice from their GP or a dermatologist with any concerns. The sooner skin cancer is diagnosed and treated the better - early detection saves lives
- Signpost customers to further information that will help them take charge of their skin health and surveillance such as by installing the Skcin app on their mobile device. See boxout below to find out more.
E45 has a modular training programme for pharmacy, with input from an expert panel. The focus is on proactive engagement between pharmacy assistants and customers with dry skin conditions.
The MASCED PRO training programme from national melanoma and skin cancer charity Skcin helps health care professionals develop their knowledge of the early signs and symptoms of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.
Skcin also has a free app to empower people of all skin types to take charge of their skin health and surveillance.