woman putting lotion on face in the winter
Winter Health Guide: Article 4 of 6

How to Prevent Dry Skin in Winter

Private: Abigail Waldman, MD
Contributor Abigail Waldman, MD

Dry skin in winter is so prevalent that it can feel like an inescapable side effect of the season. In New England, 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 percent. Though common, skin dryness in winter is avoidable for those ready to counter it with a strategic skin care routine. Dermatologist Dr. Abigail Waldman explains why dry skin occurs in the winter and shares her tips for a season of healthy, hydrated skin.

Why does dry skin happen in the winter?

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 (keratinocytes) are the bricks, and they are held together by many different proteins (such as filaggrin) and fats (such as ceramides). 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.

What are some risk factors for dry skin?

Risk factors for dry skin may include:

  • Older age
  • Specific health conditions, such as eczema or food allergies
  • Frequent hand washing, showers, baths, and swimming
  • Exposure to harsh soaps and chemicals

How can you keep skin hydrated in winter?

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 it can feel greasy. If you don’t like the greasy feel, use a thick cream instead. Oils such as Vitamin E oil can 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.

Look at the ingredients. Is it the right texture? Is it thick? Does it have some ingredient that will help? Dry skin is simple – it doesn’t require anything complicated. It just requires consistent application.

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.

Tips for Preventing Dry Skin

  • Avoid dryer sheets, scented soaps or other scented products.
  • Use sensitive skin detergent to wash your clothes – this detergent is often packaged in a white bottle.
  • Take short, cold showers and avoid long, hot baths. Very hot water can dry out your skin and a long shower is more likely to cause skin dryness than a short shower.
  • Apply a moisturizer (an ointment or a thick cream) on your face or body, especially right after baths or showers. It’s best to use an ointment that is solid at room temperature. Examples include Vaseline® and Aquaphor®.
  • Check skin cream for helpful ingredients like urea, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid.
  • Use products with urea or ammonium lactate to treat thicker areas of cracked skin on the legs, feet and hands. You can buy these products over-the-counter.
  • Apply natural oils, like mineral oil, vitamin E, coconut oil and seed oil, to prevent water loss in skin.
  • Use a humidifier at home to reduce dryness in your skin, eyes, and nose.
  • Use saline eye drops to help with dry eyes. A nasal saline rinse can also relieve the symptoms of dry nose. To protect your lips, use an emollient such as Vaseline.

When asked about the role of 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.

How can you manage itchiness or flakiness from dry 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.

What are some ways to keep skin healthy year-round?

A long-term strategy to prevent dry skin may include the regular use of sunscreen year-round. “Sunscreen helps everything. As you age, dryness gets worse as you get older because the machinery that’s turning over the proteins and 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 all worsen skin quality.

Can dry skin can be a symptom of a health condition that needs medical care?

Yes. Dry skin can be a symptom of a more serious illness or health condition, such as:

  • Hypothyroidism
  • Diabetes
  • Vitamin C deficiency
  • Fat deficiency associated with malnutrition
  • Rare genetic conditions

Learn more about the Department of Dermatology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. You can call 617-525-9496 to schedule an appointment.

-Meera K.

Private: Abigail Waldman, MD
Abigail Waldman, MD

Abigail Waldman, MD, is the clinical director of the Mohs and Dermatologic Surgery Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Before you go,

Find out how to keep your skin healthy and learn when changes in your skin may be a sign of a health condition that should be checked out by a dermatologist. Read more articles about skin health.