Dry skin in winter is so prevalent that it can feel like an inescapable side effect of the season. As the temperature plummets in the late fall and early winter, symptoms of dry skin tend to appear once the humidity outside falls under 10%. Though common, skin dryness in winter is avoidable for those ready to counter it with a strategic skin care routine.
Abigail Waldman, MD, FAAD, Mass General Brigham dermatologist and director of the Mohs and Dermatologic Surgery Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explains why dry skin occurs in the winter and shares her tips for a season of healthy, hydrated skin.
Moisture in your skin is retained by a layer called the stratum corneum. This outer wall holds water in and keeps chemicals, germs, and allergens out. Dr. Waldman compares the stratum corneum to a protective brick wall: the skin cells are the bricks, and they are held together by many different proteins and fats. The proteins and fats create the mortar of the barrier. In the winter, when the humidity drops, water more easily escapes out of this barrier through evaporation, leading to dry skin.
Risk factors for dry skin may include:
Preventing water loss through the skin is the goal during winter months. Applying a moisturizer to your face and body can add another barrier to your skin, which helps stop the water loss. It’s particularly important to apply the moisturizer right after a bath. An ointment is best, but if you don’t like the greasy feel, use a thick cream instead. Oils like Vitamin E can also help maintain the moisture barrier, but might not work well for very dry skin.
“The thicker the cream, the better. To really treat dry skin, the cream should hold its form when you turn the jar upside down. If it’s thin enough to come in a pump bottle, then it’s likely not going to do the trick for winter dry skin, and you should save it for the summer,” Dr. Waldman advises. She recommends that people focus on the ingredients of skin care products more than the branding. You can check for helpful ingredients on the label, such as urea, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and ammonium lactate.
It’s best to use as little soap as possible to treat or prevent skin dryness. Scented or abrasive soaps can strip down the outer layer of the skin. Bath products labelled with the word “gentle” are safer to use. For example, look for a product labelled as a “gentle” cleanser.
Here’s how to prevent dry skin:
When it comes to drinking water, Dr. Waldman advises, “For the average person, it won’t do much to add more water if you’re already drinking enough. Staying hydrated is great, but is not necessarily the cure-all for dry skin, since it’s more of an issue of water escaping through the skin.”
However, if you are chronically dehydrated, drinking the right amount of water can help hydrate your skin.
Dr. Waldman recommends starting with over-the-counter medicines, like a daytime antihistamine or hydrocortisone to manage itchy or flaky skin. If an over-the-counter medicine doesn’t work, see a dermatologist for a check-up. When pain, itching, redness, and flaking are disrupting your life, you may need a prescription medication. You should also seek a doctor’s guidance if you develop severe or repeat skin infections. Cracks in dry skin can let germs into your body.
A long-term strategy to prevent dry skin may include the regular use of sunscreen year-round. “Sunscreen helps everything. Dryness gets worse as you get older because the machinery that’s turning over the proteins, fats, and cells is just not working as well. That process is very much accelerated by how much sun you get,” Dr. Waldman says. Smoking, radiation exposure, and other factors can all worsen skin quality.
Dry skin can be a symptom of a more serious illness or health condition, such as:
Speak to your primary care provider (PCP) if you have concerns about dry skin or any of the above conditions.