Caring for Winter Skin


Woman by fireplaceWinter can be a flurry of exciting activities –  reveling in holiday parties, lounging by a crackling fire, baking your granny’s award-winning apple pie, or sledding down snow-covered slopes on vacation.  For some folks, however, winter can be a trying time as well – when it wreaks havoc with their skin.  Imagine trying to make the most of what the cold weather can offer, all while dealing with dry, itchy, red, cracked (and sometimes painful or sunburned) skin!  You do not need to suffer in silence, or better yet, to suffer at all!  Below are some simple explanations as to the issues your skin faces in the colder months and easy tips to help you manage them, so that you, too, can enjoy all that the season has to offer.

One very common annoyance that is more common in winter is dry skin.  The season is characterized by cold, dry air to begin with; then we turn on our heaters at home, which decrease the humidity even more, regardless of the type of heating.  Add in other factors that predispose to dry skin, and you can have a recipe for disaster.  There are several reasons that the skin may be more likely to dry out:

  • Age – we all hate to hear it, but it’s a fact that the skin becomes drier and thinner over time.
  • Climate – of course, desert or colder climates can predispose to dry skin.
  • Skin diseases, such as eczema or psoriasis, can increase the likelihood of dryness.
  • Occupation – people whose hands are frequently washed or  immersed in water (healthcare workers, hairstylists, dishwashers) often have difficulties with their skin.
  • Swimming – spending longer amounts of time in water, especially when highly chlorinated (as fun as it might be!), can significantly impact your skin.

How does dry skin happen?

Here’s why: the skin has an outer layer of dead skin cells called the stratum corneum.  Most people know we shed dead skin cells constantly.  What many may not know is that this layer has other functions as well.  The stratum corneum has a layer of natural oils (commonly called the moisture barrier) surrounding the cells which not only functions to keep water in the skin, but also helps to keep out irritating substances, allergens, and harmful organisms (such as bacteria and viruses).

Dry skin happens when the oils are lost or stripped away, such as with washing too frequently, washing with harsh or irritating soaps or chemicals, with normal skin aging, or with certain skin conditions.  This allows the water to escape the skin cells, causing the  stratum corneum to shrink and crack; this in turn allows for more water loss and the entry of more irritating substances, allergens, and germs, creating a vicious cycle.

Furthermore, dry skin can itch, leading to difficulty sleeping.  Repeated scratching or rubbing can cause thickened, rough skin.  In areas of chronic trauma, such as hands and feet, dry skin can thicken and crack, causing painful fissures.  The areas may also become red and inflamed (called dermatitis), or even painful, with pus or yellow crust, signaling infection.   But all is not lost.  Being aware of these possibilities can help you determine when you can manage dry skin at home (with a few, easy steps), and when you should seek help from an expert, such as your primary care physician or dermatologist.

What can you do to manage dry skin?

There are some simple measures which anyone can implement to help manage dry skin throughout the winter:

  • Decrease the length and heat of those showers!  Long, steamy, hot showers feel so good when it’s cold outside, but they strip your skin of those natural oils in the moisture barrier, breaking it down further.  Keep your showers warm (not hot) and 10-15 minutes long at maximum.
  • Use mild cleansers.  Aim for fragrance-free, gentle cleansers without deodorants, and alcohol-free toners.  Some soaps can be excessively drying.  Also, cleansing once daily is generally sufficient.
  • Pat or gently towel off after showering.  Excessive rubbing can irritate skin as well.
  • Moisturize as soon as possible after showering, preferably within 3-5 minutes, while the skin is still moist.  This helps to trap moisture in the skin and results in a more effective moisturization.
  •  Avoid scrubs or peels – your skin may tolerate these easily in summer, but they may cause excess  irritation and sensitivity of your already dry skin.
  • Use humidifers in the house – this is any easy way to add moisture back into the air that is removed by heating.
  • Shave after bathing or showering, when your hairs are softened.  Use a shave cream or gel for sensitive skin or that is fragrance-free, if necessary.  Let it sit on the skin for a few minutes before shaving.
  • Wear soft fabrics (such as 100% cotton) and use fragrance-free detergents and fabric softeners (or ones for sensitive skin).  Try to use only the recommended amount of detergent, and make sure the clothing is rinsed well.
  • Regular handwashing/showering/bathing is best – this helps remove bacteria and other germs from the skin which may cause infection.  Alternating handwashing with soapy water and hand sanitizer which is alcohol-free may be helpful if frequent cleaning is necessary.  Waterproof gloves can be very helpful if your hands are frequently immersed in water.  Try to moisturize after every handwashing, if possible.

What should I look for in a moisturizer?

All moisturizers are not created equally.  The nice-smelling, light lotion you use in the summertime may not help you enough in the colder months.  Ointments (such as petrolatum, aka Vaseline ointment) or heavier creams are better at repairing your skin’s moisture barrier and trapping more water in your skin, helping to break that vicious cycle.  These can sometimes be greasy – which is not always pleasant. Your primary care physician or dermatologist can give you suggestions on which products will work better and be less greasy.

Try applying the heavier ones at night, and covering the areas with socks or cotton gloves or the like.  Be careful with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine, or anti-itch products.  Some of these can contain chemicals that can irritate already inflamed skin or cause allergic reactions.  These may give temporary itch relief, but they don’t address the underlying dryness, and could worsen your condition.  Even some moisturizers may contain other substances which could irritate or cause allergic reactions in certain people: fragrances, preservatives, lanolin/lanolin alcohol, alpha-hydroxy acids, certain sunscreens.  If they irritate or worsen your skin condition, stop them and try something else.

Additionally, try to avoid products with pore-clogging oils, such as shea butter or oil.  An easy way to do this is to look for products that are “non-comedogenic.”  Finally, if you have tried some of the simple measures above, and are still struggling with your dry skin, or if the redness and discomfort will not subside, seek advise from your PCP or dermatologist.  He or she can determine if you need prescription medication to help reduce inflammation or infection.  You don’t have to go it alone!

Sunscreen in the winter?

Dry skin is not the only issue you should concern yourself with in winter.  You may not realize that your skin can still suffer damage from sun exposure in winter, increasing your risk for skin cancer and wrinkles.  Yes, you may be covered in more clothing, but you likely still have exposed skin.  Furthermore, the exposure may be greater around snow, due to reflection of the sun’s rays, and at higher elevations, as there is less atmosphere to filter the harmful UV rays.  It is still recommended to use sunscreen, and one that is at least SPF 30+, that is broad-spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB), and that is water-resistant.  Zinc oxide- and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens are good suggestions, and are less likely to cause irritation of dry skin or a burning sensation of the eyes.  Make sure to put on your sunscreen at least 15-20 minutes before going outside, to allow time for it to absorbs so it may work properly; also try to reapply at least every 2 hours.  Cover as many areas as you can otherwise with hats, scarves, long sleeves, and bandanas.  Shielding your skin from dry air and wind helps prevent chapping as well.

The long, cold months have been lovingly referred to by some as “Old Man Winter” but, your skin doesn’t have to look like him!  Hopefully the tips and tricks discussed above can not only help you look and feel more youthful, but also be better able to enjoy the best the season has to offer.  Happy, happy holidays!