When the seasons change, so does our skin. In the colder months (especially for those living in dry climates as I do), skin tends to get flakier and drier, with some people even experiencing eczema or psoriasis due to the harsh weather. When you combine that cold air with wind chill and dry indoor heat from your HVAC system, it’s a skin disaster waiting to happen.
After moving from humidity-laden NYC to dry-as-a-desert Toronto, my skin was in serious crisis mode – especially after I experienced my first Canadian winter. My sensitive skin went haywire in the lower humidity levels — especially when the bone-chilling wind of Central Canada kicked in. I had never dealt with such dry skin in my life, and it took several long conversations with my facial aesthetician to figure out just why this was happening and what we could do to fix it without me getting expensive monthly facials.
More recently, I spoke with some of the most experienced players in the skincare industry to take a look at the culprits behind dry winter skin and what you can do to get glowing skin, even on these below-freezing days.
What causes dry winter skin?
Underneath the outermost layer of our skin, known as the epidermis, is the skin barrier. Made up of dead or dying skin cells and lipids, this skin barrier is a layer of protection. When cold temps and low humidity damage it, the skin can appear dry. In the wintertime, there are fewer lipids in your skin barrier, and it’s stripped of natural oils, which is why many people need to up the ante with some additional skincare products. Although the climate outside is partially responsible for dry winter skin, so is turning the thermostat up and closing windows.
Emily Trampetti, multi-state licensed aesthetician, skincare expert, and coach tells us, “For those of us that have to deal with colder (or frigid) temperatures throughout the winter months, it seems like dry, chapped and potentially more irritated skin is just part of the wintertime experience. This happens for several reasons, but mostly because climates become less humid (less moisture in the air). Warmer air can retain more moisture than cold air, and when it’s dry outside, moisture is more likely to evaporate from your skin.
The biggest thing – no matter what season it is, water and moisture always look to leave the skin. We call it transepidermal water loss, and it happens daily wherever you live. The best way to keep your skin hydrated is to use topical products that maintain your healthy skin barrier and prevent evaporation.”
Some signs you might be experiencing dry winter skin include:
- Flaky/scaly skin
- Raw or itchy feely
- Rough texture
- Burning feeling
To replenish that much-needed moisture and restore your skin’s radiance, you can take several steps at those times when temperatures dip.
Tips to Remedy Dry Winter Skin
World-renowned dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross tells us what ingredients to look for and which ones to avoid:
“Hyaluronic acid, ceramides, ecotin, peptides, and niacinamides are the best ingredients to reach for to promote hydration and strengthen dry, compromised skin. Fix weak moisture with ceramides – they are emollients that moisturize and strengthen the skin barrier. It is even better if paired with hyaluronic acid, which is a humectant that holds 1000x times its weight in water, meaning it helps retain H20 in your skin and is great for hydrating the upper layer of skin. Ecotin is another scientifically proven emollient that strengthens and softens dry skin.
“Peptides are rich in amino acids, and applying them topically not only signals repair but also more collagen production for stronger, denser skin. Lastly, niacinamide, or vitamin B3, offers multiple benefits for those with dry skin. It has antioxidant properties, reducing the damage of oxidative stress to the skin barrier and replenishing the skin, improving its ability to hold hydration. It also helps to reduce redness, which is the root cause of inflammation.
I am not a fan of benzoyl peroxide, especially for those with dry skin and acne. Benzoyl peroxide wreaks havoc on your moisture barrier, sometimes exacerbating the issue for those with breakouts.”
Most of the issues that we have with our skin in the winter have to do with a lack of moisture. But just how do you lock in that hydration effectively?
1. Adjust your skincare routine
Your routine might look different than it does in the summer in that you’ll need a heavier moisturizer and a more gentle exfoliator or cleanser that doesn’t strip your skin of its natural oils. To avoid over-exfoliating or damaging your skin, opt for a gentle chemical exfoliant instead of one with scrubbing particles like beads. Enzyme cleansers are popular for their 2-in-1 cleansing and exfoliating properties, and I’ll share my top pick below.
Dr. Gross recommends the following: “The first step in any routine should be a cleanser. I recommend a soap-free balm cleanser because it will remove bacteria, makeup, and impurities without disturbing the moisture barrier. Next, exfoliation can remove dead, flakey skin. Up next, reach for targeted hydrating treatments. Serums are your workhorse products that help to target specific skin concerns. Moisturizers create a shield over your skin, locking in hydration and protecting against pathogens. I recommend layering both because it allows for multiple barriers of protection. Start with a serum, then follow with a moisturizer.”
2. Invest in a humidifier
With the heat turned on and the windows closed, lots of humidity is lost, resulting in dry skin. If you have a built-in humidifier, turn it up to around 30%. If you feel you need to increase it even more, do so but keep an eye on window condensation to avoid the growth of mold. You can also buy a portable humidifier to infuse moisture in the air and consider placing it in the room where you sleep or spend most of your time.
3. Use gentle cleansers and moisturize before bed
Moisturizing multiple times a day may be necessary for the winter when your skin needs to suck up as much water as possible. Moisturizing before bed or applying an overnight moisturizing mask can be particularly helpful. However, don’t just slather it on before bed – be sure to use a gentle cleanser first so that you’re putting cream on a clean surface rather than potentially clogging pores and spreading bacteria.
4. Even though it’s cold, use sunscreen daily
Many people think that sun can only damage your skin in the summer, but the winter is when it really does a doozy on us. UV light can stress out your skin’s moisture barrier, which is important for keeping skin healthy and hydrated. Try to use at least SPF 30 on your skin. Elta MD is a popular choice that can double as a lightweight moisturizer in the summer. Dr. Gross comments, “Never forget sun protection. The harmful UVA and UVB rays from the sun poke holes in our skin and break down our collagen structure over time. In the process, it reduces the ability to retain and hold moisture. Preventing this damage in the first place with daily SPF protection can improve dry skin conditions in the short and long term.”
5. Hydrate inside and out
Even if you’ve been applying the fanciest skincare products to protect against cold winter air, if you’re not drinking enough fluids, your complexion will look dull and be prone to drying out more quickly. Drink as much water as possible throughout the day, and add in herbal tea to remedy the sinus problems that often come with a dry climate. Using a personal facial steamer can also help with hydration.
Osmosis MD Purify Enzyme Cleanser
The foundation of my skincare routine and my favorite face wash ever, a little goes a long way with this Purify papaya enzyme cleanser. While it pumps out in a gel, it turns creamy when applied to the skin, and it’s the only cleanser that doesn’t leave my skin feeling stripped or like it requires a toner. Instead, I can go straight to my serum, knowing that my skin is gently exfoliated, brightened, and cleansed with natural oils still intact. Although it’s available in a smaller size, I recommend this larger pump bottle for ease of use and better bang for your buck.
Dr. Dennis Gross Pro Facial Steamer
I tested out Dr. Dennis Gross’s Pro Facial Steamer this winter, and it’s become a weekly staple in my routine. Dr. Gross shares: “Water has natural cleansing properties. It can remove surface debris and impurities gently without stripping the moisture barrier. Steaming causes waxy, hard build-up in pores to liquefy and drain from the pore, improving decongestion. It also increases circulation for better oxygen blood flow to deliver nutrients and vitamins, and clear waste and toxins.”
It’s also a surprisingly helpful hack for clearing out those stuffy sinuses that are so common in the winter. Use it for up to nine minutes after you’ve removed your cleanser.
La Roche-Posay Hyalu B5 Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum
Think of your serum as the filling in your sandwich between your cleanser and your moisturizer. While I personally used an antioxidant-packed serum by Osmosis, if you’re in the market for an under $100 serum that’s still effective, La Roche Posay is my go-to budget brand that’s a popular dupe for more expensive brands. Packed with hydrating ingredients, this crowdpleaser contains every dermatologist’s favorite ingredient – hyaluronic acid. Providing moisture while plumping skin and smoothing out fine lines, this serum also has anti-aging benefits and is safe to use on sensitive skin.
Osmosis MD Mango Recovery Mask
Every time I need to brave the brutal wind while taking my dog out, I slather on this Tropical Mango Recover Mask from Osmosis Skincare, wiping it off when I get home. Designed to protect and repair your skin barrier, many people use this as an overnight mask as well. Its fruit and nut butter base is packed with nutrients to heal and restore your skin’s protective lipid barrier and has a mousse-like texture that sits comfortably on the skin. A must-have for sensitive and dry skin that requires frequent soothing, this mask can be used daily.
Kiehls Ultra Facial Cream
With so many expensive creams to choose from, finding a solid winter moisturizer that’s safe for sensitive skin can be overwhelming. Kiehl’s is always a reliable skincare brand that you can count on, and their Ultra Facial Cream should be the final step in your routine after your serum has been applied. Immediately hydrating with squalene and a protein derived from sea glaciers, this gentle cream infuses tons of moisture but remains lightweight, absorbing fast on the skin. Looking for an even cheaper dupe? Check out Skin Food by Weleda.
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
Dry skin isn’t just on the face. If you’re dealing with all-over dryness, Cerave is the winter hack you need to know. Compared to pricier brands, it offers the best value with its fragrance-free, ceramic and hyaluronic acid-packed formula, which is why it’s still a #1 best-seller on Amazon. For under $20, itchy and dehydrated skin will be quenched in no time.
Pure Enrichment Humidifier
Regardless of your skincare routine, if you don’t have a built-in humidifier in your heating system, a portable humidifier is a game-changer for those colder seasons. Place it in your bedroom or living room for maximum benefits, but try to keep it away from high-humidity zones like bathrooms. An ultrasonic model like this will run quietly at night without disturbing you and come in several sizes.