Caring for Dry Winter Skin

By Sally Wadyka. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

In frigid winter months, outdoor humidity levels are typically much lower compared to during summer months because cold air has less ability to hold moisture than warm air. And inside, the addition of artificial heat dries the air even more. One result is a season’s worth of chapped, itchy and irritated skin.

“The outer layer of the skin is your body’s first line of defense against the environment,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “Cold weather stresses the skin and makes it less able to function as an effective barrier.”

Inflammatory Skin Conditions Flare in the Cold

Dry heat indoors and low humidity levels outdoors are the main culprits when it comes to winter skin problems. Cold temperatures and wind also contribute. While a hot shower might be appealing on a chilly morning, it’s the wrong approach for dry skin.  Skin has a harder time holding onto moisture, resulting in water loss. The more water lost across the skin, the worse the skin’s protective barrier functions.

Things that wouldn’t necessarily cause problems during other times of the year, such as soaking in a hot bath or washing with deodorant soap, are enough to make your skin extra sensitive in the winter.

When your skin barrier is not functioning properly, one quick result is inflammation. This is particularly problematic for those who suffer from eczema, a skin condition associated with redness and itchiness. Eczema flare-ups often get worse during the winter months.

Quick-Fix Ingredients Keep Itchy Skin Hydrated

When the skin is under stress and not functioning at its best, it experiences more water loss and has a harder time holding on to any moisture that’s left. That’s where topical treatments come in. Using creams and lotions with the right combination of ingredients will help keep the skin barrier healthy so that skin can retain essential moisture. These types of ingredients may include:

  • Occlusives: These are thick oils that physically block water from being lost across the outer layer of the skin. Try petroleum or lanolin.
  • Humectants: These compounds help pull water into the surface of the skin, either from the deeper layers of dermis or from the environment. Try sorbitol, glycerin or hyaluronic acid.
  • Emollients: Ultra-moisturizing ingredients help smooth and soothe the outer layer of skin. Try shea butter or dimethicone.
  • Ceramides: This type of fat helps repair your skin barrier. Look for cosmetic products that include ceramides.
  • Colloidal oatmeal: Studies have shown that colloidal oatmeal — which has humectant, emollient and occlusive properties — is an effective treatment for dry skin and can even help with eczema.


Take the next steps

To keep skin as healthy as possible during the winter, pay special attention to how you care for it. Simple strategies can help:

  • Add moisture to the air: Using a humidifier can offset the low humidity levels of dry indoor air.
  • Limit hot water: Hot water strips skin of essential oils. Keep showers and baths warm, not hot, and limit your time in the tub to 10 minutes or less.
  • Be careful with exfoliation: Scrubbing flaky, dry skin will increase inflammation and irritation. Better to moisturize first and then gently exfoliate.

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