How to Combat 4 Major Winter Skin Situations

Winter is fab for many things — hot chocolate, skiing, cozying up by the fire among them — but when it comes to our skin, the season doesn’t do us a whole lot of favors. Freezing temperatures, gusty winds, low humidity, and dry indoor air are enough to send even the most well-adjusted complexions into a blustery tailspin. To keep our skin in check from now until spring, we asked dermatologist Dr. Nikhil Dhingra of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City to outline the four biggest winter skin offenders and tell us how to combat them. Spoiler alert: They all pertain to your skin’s epidermal barrier, which when broken, can lead to redness, itching, dullness, flaking and more. 

The Winter Skin Offender: Cold, Dry Air

The effects of low humidity on the skin have been researched extensively and the results are not great, to put it mildly. Dr. Dhingra says there are a number of published studies that have shown that low humidity can, in fact, lead to a “thickened layer of dry, coarse skin” and that it triggers a decrease in barrier function, meaning moisture can escape and more toxins and allergens can enter. This is where the rashes, itchiness and flakiness come into play. A damaged skin barrier can also cause flare-ups of dermatologic conditions like eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and acne.

“A common thing that brings patients into our office in early winter is the sudden onset of a rash, itching, or dryness, seemingly overnight,” says Dr. Dhingra. “A European study of mice noted that it took only 48 hours from a drop in environmental humidity for skin to thicken substantially, also prompting a six- to seven-fold increase in water loss from that impaired skin barrier. That matches up with what we see with patients, too… that impaired skin barrier accelerates penetration of irritants and allergens, suddenly causing problems where there was none during warmer months.”

“Impaired skin barrier accelerates penetration of irritants and allergens, suddenly causing problems where there was none during warmer months.”

Dr. nikhil dhingra

How to Combat It: It sounds simple, but moisturizing is critical in the fight against low humidity. “To moisturize properly, you need two elements in your products, a humectant, which lures water to the skin’s outermost layers (think hyaluronic acid), and an occlusive (think oils or ceramides), which actually seals that water in,” says Dr. Dhingra. Taking short, lukewarm showers and applying your moisturizer directly after on damp skin will make a world of difference, he adds. Not sure if your moisturizer makes the cold-weather cut? Try our new Banana Soufflé Moisture Cream, which is designed to nourish, heal, and soothe stressed-out skin. In addition to calming banana extract and magnesium, it contains humectants glycerin and sodium hyaluronate (a form of hyaluronic acid) and occlusive ingredients like jojoba oil and squalane. 

The Winter Skin Offender: Artificial Heating

The colder it gets outside, the more we tend to crank up the heat inside. Although doing so may actually help our skin in certain respects, like being able to wear more breathable clothing and avoiding common skin irritants like wool, it’s still not ideal. “Indoor heating can definitely further dehydrate your skin as it’s pumping warm, but very dry, air throughout your home,” says Dr. Dhingra. This can cause the same skin symptoms you see as a result of the dry air outside: redness, dullness, flakiness, and itching. 

How to Combat It: In addition to adding a moisturizer to your routine, Dr. Dhingra recommends getting a humidifier for your home. We also like keeping a smaller-size version at our desks!

“To moisturize properly, you need two elements in your products, a humectant, which lures water to the skin’s outermost layers (think hyaluronic acid), and an occlusive (think oils or ceramides), which actually seals that water in.”

dr. nikhil dhingra

The Winter Skin Offender: Sun

“It’s a misconception that winter sun is less damaging that summer sun,” says Dr. Dhingra. “UVA and UVB rays may not be present for as many hours of the day during the dark winter months, but only a few minutes of exposure additively can cause issues and induce DNA-level changes in the skin.” We’re talking about premature signs of aging (hi wrinkles and sun spots!), increased risk of certain skin cancers and more. Regardless of the season, UV rays damage the skin’s epidermal barrier. “UVB rays (the ones that cause you to burn) increase epidermal thickening, which causes dullness and itching and epidermal water loss. UVA rays (the [ones that cause signs of premature] aging) disrupt barrier function and facilitate the entry of toxins and allergens, setting you up for allergic reactions and infections.”

How to Combat It: “A broad-spectrum sunscreen is going to be a necessity year-round (one with UVA and UVB coverage),” advises Dr. Dhingra. Look for one with an SPF of 30 or higher that also contains humectants and occlusive ingredients to address multiple winter skin offenders at once.

Antioxidants have also been shown to boost the effectiveness of SPF, so try layering it with a serum that contains vitamin C in the daytime.

The Winter Skin Offender: Harsh Winds

If your skin feels tight, itchy, and is bright-red after coming in from the cold, blame those blustery winds “Low humidity can cause the skin to be more susceptible to shearing forces,” explains Dr. Dhingra. “Wind is a fantastic example, where when paired with a dry environment, it can cause skin peeling, redness, flaking and perpetuate the drying effects of water loss via enhanced evaporation.”

How to Combat It: Once again, a comforting moisturizer with humectant and occlusive ingredients is key here. “Moisturizing with the above elements is a good starting point,” says Dr. Dhingra. We also swear by introducing additional hydration at night with our Avocado Melt Retinol Sleep Mask, which was specifically developed for dry and sensitive skin, i.e., all of us come winter.  

Don’t let winter mess with your skin — follow these tips to coldproof your skin this season and ensure your complexion stays smooth, soft, and supple year round. 

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