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6 winter skin savers

Woman using moisturizer for an article about caring for skin in winter

These simple tricks can help you deal with dryness, irritation and other seasonal skin woes. 

As you ramp up for the best year ever, setting new and improved health goals, consider making seasonal adjustments to how you care for and think about your skin, too. After all, as you probably remember from winters past, cold, wet and windy weather outdoors coupled with dry heat indoors can do a number on your skin.

The good news: It doesn’t take much effort or big changes to protect skin and treat the effects of the weather to keep your skin comfortable all the way to spring.

How winter weather affects skin

There are some key seasonal skin saboteurs to watch out for. Here are the big ones:

Dryness. Cold temps outdoors combined with low humidity from indoor heat creates a lot of dry air that can pull moisture out of the skin, says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD. She is a board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer of Ideal Image. “This can lead to dry, dehydrated skin.”

If you like to walk, ski or otherwise spend prolonged time outdoors, the results may be worse. “Cold air and wind strip skin of surface oils,” explains Debra Jaliman, MD. Dr. Jaliman is assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.

Irritation. Once skin becomes dry, it easily chaps, cracks and peels — signs that its barrier has been disrupted. But even if you don’t see those visible signs, the barrier function may still be weak. “When the skin barrier is compromised, it becomes vulnerable not only to further dehydration but also to the entry of skin irritants from our environment,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says. In other words, anything that comes in contact with your skin, including pollutants in the air and certain skincare products, can be irritating. This can lead to stinging, redness, itching and general sensitivity.

Low circulation. “Cold weather constricts blood vessels in your extremities,” Dr. Jaliman says. That lack of blood and oxygen can lead to inflamed, red and painful skin patches on fingers and toes especially, which are known as chilblains. Anyone can develop chilblains (also called pernio), but they’re more common if you smoke or spend a lot of time in cold, damp weather.

Sun damage. Even though summer is when UV light is strongest, winter sun exposure is still risky and can age skin and raise your chances of developing skin cancer. “Snow acts as a mirror for UV rays, reflecting up to 90% of UV radiation,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says. “This means you can be exposed to almost double the dose of UV from the sun bouncing off snowy surfaces. UV radiation also increases with altitude, so if you’re skiing or hiking, exposure is increased.”

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6 ways to keep skin healthy all season

1. Rethink shower time
While a long, hot shower or bath with sudsy, scented soap may feel relaxing, it can set you up for serious skin problems. “Keep showers lukewarm and less than 10 minutes,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says. “Hot water is too harsh on skin and will break down the oils on the surface.” Likewise, the longer you stay in, the more surface oils are likely to wash down the drain.

Use fragrance-free, hydrating body washes made specifically for sensitive skin. “Deodorant soaps can strip skin, and fragrance can be irritating,” Dr. Jaliman says. After your shower, she also suggests gently patting skin dry rather than rubbing vigorously. Patting helps to avoid triggering already-compromised skin.

2. Moisturize immediately after a shower and washing hands
While skin is still damp, lather on a thick lotion or cream. This helps repair and protect skin and replace moisture that’s been lost, Dr. Jaliman says. Ingredients to look for:

  • Shea butter, petrolatum, mineral and other plant oils, all of which are occlusive ingredients that feel moisturizing and form a protective barrier on skin to help seal in moisture
  • Glycerin and hyaluronic acid, humectants that hold moisture to skin
  • Ceramides, lipids and niacinamide, which help bolster and repair skin’s barrier function

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3. Consider swapping out your usual facial cleanser for a gentler alternative
If you use a foaming and gel cleanser in the warmer months, now is the time to switch to a cream-based product, Dr. Mraz Robinson says.

“Foaming cleansers contain sulfates, which can cause dryness and irritation. Gel cleansers are typically a bit gentler than foaming cleansers but not as nourishing as cream cleansers, which hydrate with skin-soothing emollients and humectants such as squalene, glycerin and shea butter,” she says. “Also, skip the toner and think about trading a physical scrub with grainy particles such as apricot or walnut for a product that gently exfoliates with alpha or beta hydroxy acids or enzymes.”

Yes, gentle exfoliation is still important: “You need to remove dry, dead surface cells so skin can best absorb the ingredients you apply to rebuild skin’s barrier,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says.

4. Hydrate with more than skincare products
A humidifier can be skin’s best friend come winter. Look for one that measures the room’s humidity and adjusts accordingly, and set it to about 60% humidity, Dr. Jaliman says. Dr. Mraz Robinson, meanwhile, recommends hydrating from the inside out by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.

5. Don’t forget the sunscreen
Not only do the sun’s UV rays damage skin and raise your risk for skin cancer, they can leave skin feeling tender and dry. Prolonged exposure to wind (when participating in outdoor winter sports, for example) can make you even more susceptible to dry skin and sun damage. Wind can cause the topmost skin cells to dry out and slough off, weakening skin’s natural protection and allowing for moisture loss, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

“It’s important to wear an SPF 30 or above,” Dr. Jaliman says. “I prefer physical sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and with the highest concentration you can find.” Unlike chemical sunscreens that are absorbed into skin and filter out damaging rays (and which can be irritating for some with sensitive skin), mineral-based blockers sit on the surface of skin and physically shield skin from the sun’s rays, Dr. Mraz Robinson explains. Choose a creamy product with moisturizing ingredients like those mentioned above and reapply at least every 2 hours.

6. Watch out for sneaky fabric irritants
It’s important to bundle up when heading outdoors to protect skin. Cold temperatures reduce circulation to hands and feet, and the body diverts blood away from vital organs to protect them, says Dr. Mraz Robinson.

The wind can also quickly dry out exposed skin. But while wool and cashmere may be cozy and warm, they can potentially irritate winter-dry skin. So wear a cotton shirt underneath to protect skin, Dr. Jaliman says, or a sweat-wicking, quick-drying performance fabric for a base layer if you’ll be more active. Then layer on the warmer, heavier outerwear.

Likewise, be aware that some laundry detergents, dryer sheets and fabric softeners can leave residue on clothes that can trigger red, itchy and sensitive skin. Instead, says Dr. Jaliman, “use fragrance-free detergent and dryer balls made of wool or alpaca to lessen exposure to potentially irritating chemicals.”

We’re here to help you stay as healthy as possible — and recover as quickly as you can — all season long. Check out our winter wellness guide now. 

Additional sources
Dry skin facts: American Academy of Dermatology. "Dermatologists' top tips for relieving dry skin"
Chilblains: Cleveland Clinic (2021). "Chilblains (Pernio)"
Ultraviolet radiation: American Cancer Society (2019). "Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation"
Compromised epidermal barrier: Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology (2016). "Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner: Proceedings of an Expert Panel Roundtable Meeting"
Sunscreen basics: American Academy of Dermatology. "Sunscreen FAQs"
Effects of wind on skin: Skin Cancer Foundation (2021). "Against the Wind"