Cities that are Tough on Skin

At least 81 million Americans experience dry, itchy, or scaly skin during the winter months, according to a 2007 National Health Interview Survey. Other environmental factors — including heat, wind, low humidity, and high altitude — can cause the skin to lose moisture and look and feel uncomfortably dry. At once delicate and resilient, skin — our largest organ — undergoes a lot of daily wear and tear, and the city you call home plays a role in this. We selected the 15 cities that are toughest on skin, based on research by the National Climatic Data Center, to identify various environmental factors that can affect the epidermis, or outer layer of skin.

Extreme Weather: Kodiak, Alaska

This rugged, beautiful island on the coast of southwestern Alaska is known for its diverse scenery, wildlife — and weather. There is a common saying in town: "Just wait another five minutes and the weather will change," and residents say Kodiak often experiences all four seasons in one day. Kodiak logs an average 84.5 inches of annual snowfall, and already-frigid temperatures are aggravated by strong winds that often lead to a negative-zero wind-chill factor. Such dramatic weather changes can leave skin dry and itchy, and in need of a strong barrier moisturizer.

Hard Water: San Diego, California

"Hard water contains minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron, which can dry and harden on the skin," says Barbara R. Reed, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver. Minerals drying on the skin can clog pores and cause flaking and itching. Such water, which gathers minerals from the ground as it flows through the ecosystem, is found in San Diego, among other cities. "Hard water tends to form some salts with soap which are hard to wash off," adds Stephen B. Webster, MD, clinical professor in dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Soft Water: Seattle, Washington

Soft water has a very low mineral count, which reacts with soap to create much more lather than hard water does. Seattle is located in a region with the softest water in the U.S. While soft-water users don't have to worry about mineral residue drying on the skin, they're not free of their own problems. "The extra foam that soft water forms with soap is hard to rinse off," says Dr. Webster. "Residual soap raises the pH of the skin, which can irritate the skin and dry it out."

Highest Average Wind Speed: Amarillo, Texas

Just like a blow-dryer on wet hair, wind speeds the evaporation of moisture from the surface of the skin. "This is called trans-epidermal water loss and can be measured experimentally," says Bruce A. Brod, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "The top layer of skin, or stratum corneum, becomes less effective at preventing water loss from the skin in windy conditions." Amarillo has one of the highest average annual wind speeds in the U.S., at 13.5 miles per hour (compared to Chicago's 10.3 mph), making it a prime spot to have the moisture whisked off your skin by a brisk breeze.

Maximum Wind Speed: Galveston, Texas

The lipid and protein cells that make up the protective barrier of the skin are no match for a whipping wind, which whisks moisture away from the epidermis significantly more rapidly than still air. The coastal city of Galveston experiences high-speed winds that regularly top 70 mph, making it a likely spot to experience wind-induced water loss from the skin.

Most Stressful: Chicago, Illinois

Everyone knows that high levels of stress can cause breakouts, but it can also cause epidermal dryness. "Excess perspiration can lead to skin dehydration," explains Dr. Reed. She adds that a poor diet -- such as one that's low in healthy fats -- "will eventually affect the skin negatively by failing to provide the body with the minimum amount of fat necessary to keep skin moisturized," which can result in dry, tight skin. In a recent study, Chicago earned the title of "America's Most Stressful City" for its rising unemployment rate, expensive gas, high population density, and relatively poor air quality.

Pollution: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Daily exposure to polluted air may have the same kind of damaging effects on the skin as smoking. "Environmental pollutants tend to age the skin, making it appear wrinkled and sallow," says Dr. Brod. With one of the highest concentrations of ash, soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals, and aerosols of any American city, according to the American Lung Association, Pittsburgh is one of the most polluted cities in the U.S.

High Altitude: Denver, Colorado

The mile-high city of Denver, which sits exactly 5,280 feet above sea level, has the ultimate skin-drying factors: Arid air sucks moisture from the stratum corneum, and high winds accelerate the process. Add to that the cold-weather necessity for indoor heat, which lacks the humidity necessary for moisture retention, and you've got a recipe for dry skin.

Lowest Humidity: Las Vegas, Nevada

Every time you bathe you remove natural oils from your skin, which allows the water in your skin to evaporate into the atmosphere. "The drier the atmosphere, the faster the water in your skin cells evaporates, and the drier your skin gets," says Webster. Arid Las Vegas is exceptionally hot and has the lowest average relative humidity in the U.S., which speeds up the drying effect. To help skin keep its moisture, dermatologists recommend that you gently pat skin with a towel after bathing, showering, or swimming, then apply a thin coating of moisturizer.

Highest Mean Temperature: Miami, Florida

"Hot, humid weather usually causes no problem with dry skin," says Webster, "but air-conditioned air is very dry — and in hot weather we are in air-conditioning a lot." The American city with one of the highest mean temperatures throughout the year (76.7ºF) is Miami. Air-conditioning — a necessity in Miami nearly year- round — depletes moisture from indoor air and from the epidermis, leading to dry skin.

Most Frequent Days Above 90: Phoenix, Arizona

Miami may have steady heat, but Phoenix beats it for consistently sizzling temperatures. The mercury in Phoenix reaches 90ºF or higher on an average 169 days per year — perfect conditions for maximum air-conditioning use, which dries out the skin. Phoenix is also the second driest city in the country, so even if you use your AC as sparingly as possible, you'll still have trouble locking moisture into your skin.

Sunniest City: Yuma, Arizona

With a whopping 242 cloudless days per year on average, Yuma is the sunniest city in the United States. While that may sound like perfection to good-weather seekers, it can be less than ideal for the epidermis. "Overexposure to the sun can dry out the skin," says Brod. This is because UV light causes increased turnover of the top layer of the skin, which leads to peeling and dryness. Covering up and wearing sunscreen are important for preventing cancer and wrinkles — and for keeping dry skin at bay.

Lowest Mean Temperature: Sioux Falls, South Dakota

With 167 days per year below 32ºF, Sioux Falls is one of the chilliest cities in the U.S. Low temperatures themselves do not cause dry skin; it's how we cope with the cold that does. "In cold weather we turn on the heat," says Reed. "And electric or forced-air heat contains very low humidity." The dry, heated air accelerates water loss from skin cells, causing tight, dry skin. Sioux Falls experiences marathon blizzards — in 1989 it snowed in the city for nearly 77 hours straight — so if you're headed there, be prepared for lots of time indoors.

Lowest Normal Daily Temperature: Colorado Springs, Colorado

For sheer time spent in nippy temps, the residents of Colorado Springs are quite accustomed to down-jacket weather. The city has a normal daily mean temperature of 47.9ºF, the lowest in the region, which leads to plenty of time spent indoors. Dry, heated air means plenty of chance that you'll have dry, flaky, and even itchy skin. Luckily, Colorado Springs folks get periodic relief from warm "Chinook winds," or the Pacific Northwest coastal winds known to raise temperatures by 20ºF in several hours.

Lowest Temperature Ever on Record: Madison, Wisconsin

For extreme cold snaps, it's easy to feel sympathy for residents in Alaska, Colorado, and South Dakota. But don't forget the fine citizens of Madison. Winter temperatures regularly drop lower than -30ºF, and temps are below freezing an average of 160 days per year. That makes the prolonged use of indoor heat a necessity — which makes for especially drying conditions for the epidermis. Unfortunately, using a humidifier may not stop indoor heating from exacerbating dry skin. "Even with humidification, the humidity is only raised to about 25 percent, and we need more than that to keep our skin moist," says Reed.

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