The Science Behind Winter Skin: When, Why, and How to Treat

Whether you’re out in the elements cross-country skiing or simply running errands with your gloves, hat and scarf securely in place, it’s that time of year again: when dry, itchy “winter skin” takes hold. So why does our skin take such a beating in the colder months, and how you can effectively combat the symptoms?

Let’s start with the cause – Harvard University Health sums it up well in this article: they explain that dry skin is the result of the epidermis not retaining sufficient moisture. Colder months provide a particularly bad environment: humidity in the air outside is naturally lower than in summer months and the air inside homes is just as dry because of various heating methods.

So how should one combat the dry air and resulting dry skin? Harvard University Health has some other great tips to consider:

  • Use a humidifier in your home to add moisture back into the air.

  • Take shorter showers and don’t use scalding hot water – this can strip your skin of natural oils and increase dry skin.

  • Soap also dries the skin, so use gentle formulas that contain a moisturizer.

  • Try not to scratch your skin, even with exfoliates or loofas!

  • Apply lotion after you shower when your pores are open to ensure maximum absorption.

What if you are following all these rules but are still experiencing dry, itchy skin? It could be indicative of a more serious problem. Alice G. Walton wrote an article for Forbes that took a closer look at three specific skin conditions that can flare up during colder months.

The first - Raynaud’s disease - occurs when cold weather causes blood vessels constrict and circulation slows. Skin is deprived of oxygen and begins to lose its color. In severe cases the skin may appear to look purple and a trip to the doctors for medicine would be needed. If you are diagnosed with Raynaud’s, doctors recommend avoiding caffeine and nicotine as these two substances cause blood vessels to constrict which can worsen the symptoms.

Next, Cold Uriticaria are hives that form on the skin – this is essentially an allergic reaction to the cold! Unlike other skin allergies, Cold Uriticaria cannot be managed with antihistamines. You’ll just have to bundle up inside and avoid the cold to ease these itchy red bumps.

Lastly, Walton explores Rosacea. A rather common condition, this reddening of the skin on your face can be exacerbated by extreme cold (and extreme heat as well). Rosacea can be treated with antibiotics in some patients, but dietary changes and vitamin supplements have also been shown to help some individuals manage the symptoms.

On that note – happy winter, everyone! Stay safe, warm, and well-hydrated!