When I decided to move from Montreal to the Rocky Mountains in Banff, Alberta, I meticulously researched everything I thought I needed to know about living in a mountain town. I expected short winter days and long summer nights. I learned about the ski culture there and the large number of young Australians and New Zealanders in town.
But what I didn’t expect was for my skin to dry out, new wrinkles to form, and even my nipples to start flaking. I also noticed small, itchy, dry patches around my mouth and chin that had never been there before.
And I really started to worry when, in a matter of months, two horizontal wrinkles on opposite ends of my forehead finally connected into one line, taunting me. It was time for a change.
Changing your climate can change your skin needs.
I’d never truly had a skin-care routine before. In more humid climates, like Montreal, there can be so much moisture in the air in the summer that your hair refuses to dry after a shower and you need to be careful to hang your towel up properly (otherwise it’ll smell like a dank basement). There, I was happy to wash my face with whatever soap was nearby, then slap on a random moisturizer.
But living in a land-locked, high-altitude environment like Banff—4,537 feet above sea level—means that the lower humidity dries out your skin. Combine that with extreme temperature swings in short periods of time and less oxygen in the atmosphere, and you’ve got a recipe for skin damage.
“And it’s not like most people are outside just sitting—they’re outside doing things,” dermatologist Paul Lubitz, M.D., clinical assistant professor with the University of Calgary and University of Alberta, tells SELF. When you’re active like that, “you perspire more and you lose even more hydration, and those factors directly relate to dryness of the skin that you don’t see at lower altitudes in city centers,” Dr. Lubitz says. Indeed, the Bow Valley is known for its world-class mountain sports like skiing, and rock and ice climbing. It’s the kind of place where you might run into an Olympian at the post office.
“The dryness here is striking,” Michele Ramien, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist and clinical associate professor at the University of Calgary, tells SELF. She moved to Alberta last fall from a more humid climate, so she understands the struggle of adapting your skin-care routine.
After trying all sorts of creams and moisturizers, Dr. Ramien’s skin learned to accept the changes. “Your skin does adapt to a certain degree, but you also get used to being a bit more dry than you were before,” she says. For me, the adjustment meant changing my skin-care routine in both expected and unexpected ways.
Here’s how I adjusted my routine to my new climate.
First off, I no longer use a soapy or foamy cleanser to clean my face, something both dermatologists are on board with because these can be drying for some.
Instead, they recommend using a gentle cleanser, and Dr. Ramien even suggests trying out products formulated to manage the symptoms of eczema. I switched to oil cleansing at night ( Rocky Mountain Soap Co.’s Transformative Cleansing Oil), then I slather on a thick moisturizer. Right now I’m using Skin Drink from Lush, but I like to mix it up. In the morning, I cleanse my skin with a micellar water followed by a hydrating serum (right now I’m using Hydraluron from Indeed, but I’m happy to experiment with serums), a Trader Joe’s rosewater facial toner, and a moisturizer with SPF 30 (more on that in a minute).
I also stopped washing my hair as frequently and switched to a much gentler shampoo to help my dry, flaky scalp. I like Live Clean, which also happens to be one of the brands that Dr. Ramien recommends. Occasionally, I’ll massage conditioner into my scalp, something I never would have done while living in the eastern, damper part of the country lest people confuse my hair for a flat-top grill. Some may even find that baby shampoos are a good switch when they move to the mountains because they’re so gentle, says Dr. Lubitz.
I had to change the way I wash my body too. A 10- to 15-minute bath (that’s warm but not hot) will do more to hydrate the skin than showering, Dr. Lubitz explains. In fact, those dealing with dry skin associated with psoriasis are often encouraged to take frequent baths to help wash away dead skin cells. Just don’t forget to moisturize afterward, Dr. Ramien says.
And I never skip sun protection.
My new climate also taught me to never underestimate the intensity of the sun. For instance, after a day hike where I sunscreened all of my exposed skin except for the lower part of my legs (I’d never thought it would be necessary), I got home and took off my three-quarter leggings only to find a burn the likes of which I’d only ever experienced in Miami or Cuba. It looked like I was wearing fiery red knee-high socks. I had (shamefully) never bothered to wear sunscreen regularly before.
I just hadn’t realized how much my increased elevation also increased my UV exposure and, therefore, my chances for a sunburn. As the atmosphere thins, you have less of a buffer between the sun and your skin. In fact, it’s estimated that UV levels increase by 10 to 12 percent for every 1,000 meters you climb, according to the World Health Organization. And in a winter wonderland like Banff, it’s important to keep in mind that fresh snow can reflect the sun and almost double your UV exposure.
And that’s not just a cosmetic concern: In addition to a sunburn, sun damage can lead to premature aging of the skin, which affects both the protective physical barrier of the skin and it’s immune functioning. That increases your risk for infections, water loss, dryness, sensitivity, and even skin cancer, Dr. Lubitz says.
In fact, Dr. Lubitz estimates that he sees four to five times more cases of skin cancer at his practice, Art of Skin, in the mountains in Canmore, Alberta, than he did at his practice in Edmonton, which sits at a much lower 2,100 feet above sea level. “On any given day I can have a patient that comes in and they prematurely age their skin 10 to 15 to 20 years more than their chronological age,” he says.
That’s why he recommends using a mineral-based sunscreen (at least SPF 50), which sits on top of the skin, works immediately, and tend to be more gentle on sensitive skin.
Wearing protective clothing while outdoors and doing your best to avoid the midday peak sun hours (generally 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) will also help to keep your skin safe, Dr. Ramien says. And being at a greater risk for skin cancer makes your regular skin checks with a dermatologist that much more important, Dr. Lubitz says, adding that he’s seen an increasing number of younger patients with precancerous skin conditions in his practice.
Check with a dermatologist if you’re not sure where to start.
Before making major changes to your routine, it’s usually a good idea to talk to a dermatologist about your skin type and to get some guidance on what your skin might need. And Dr. Ramien suggests simply waiting to see how your skin adjusts to the climate before making changes.
It turns out that caring for my skin—with gentle cleansing, moisturizer, and lots of SPF—now that I live at altitude is about more than the conjoined wrinkle across my forehead. Having a skin-care routine is about keeping my largest organ functioning happily and healthily. And any glowing complexion that comes along with that is a very welcome result.