How's Your Skin This Winter?

Last Editorial Review: 2/1/2005

The cold is a real menace to your exterior and can leave you feeling crackly all over. But once you get indoors, do you become your skin's best friend or an ally to the elements? Don't be seduced by the dry side -- follow these tips and your skin will thank you. 

By Martin Downs
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Year after year, winter winds bring dry, itchy skin. It's not just the frigid gusts that get you, however, but also a dryness in the air that robs your skin of its precious moisture.

You probably say all sorts of nasty things about humidity during the summer. But now that there isn't much moisture in the air, a bit of humidity is just what your skin needs. No chance you'll be able to change things outside, of course, but you can make the air in your home comfortably moist.

If you have a modern forced-air heating system, you'll notice vapor billowing from the furnace vent on a cold day. That's the moisture you're losing from the air in your home. Without good humidity indoors, the thirsty air will suck moisture from anywhere it can, including your skin. That causes it to feel tight, crack, flake, and itch like crazy.

Get a Humidifier

You can have a humidifier installed as part of your heating system. It's not too expensive, and the discomfort you'll be spared is well worth the cost. If you live in an apartment where you have no control over the central heating system, you should invest in a stand-alone humidifier.

There is a difference between a humidifier and a vaporizer. The thing you buy at the drug store that blows steam is a vaporizer: You're supposed to hold your head over it and breathe the vapor to help loosen congestion or relieve sinus pain.

Running a vaporizer will put some humidity in the air, but that's not what it's designed to do. A humidifier does a much better job, and some models let you adjust the humidity level to your comfort: Most people would find a level of 45% relative humidity ideal.

Humidifying your house may help you save on heating bills, too. Humid air feels warmer than the dry stuff. So if you raise the humidity, you'll feel comfortable at a lower thermostat setting.

Seal Your Skin

You can't control the humidity when you're out and about, so even if the environment in your home is perfect, you may still have problems with dry skin.

Again, there's a simple solution: Rub on some lotion.

In general, dermatologists recommend skin lotions that are less likely to cause an allergic reaction, a term called "hypoallergenic." But experts say you need to watch out for gimmicks.

"Don't be fooled by labels that say, 'All natural,'" says Walter Unger, MD, a dermatologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. You can still have allergic reactions to all sorts of natural ingredients, he warns.

Unger says you should get the heaviest lotion you're comfortable using. "The greasier it is, the better," he says. That's because you want to trap your skin's moisture so it won't evaporate. But if you're prone to acne, you'll want to use a lighter lotion on the parts of your body where you tend to break out. Look for a lotion that's labeled "non-comedogenic." That means it won't clog pores and cause pimples.

Also, you should avoid taking long, hot baths in wintertime. A hot, soapy bath feels wonderful after trudging through sleet and snow, but it also will wash away your skin's natural oil, taking moisture with it.

A lukewarm bath, however, will help replenish the moisture you've lost. Unger says you should soak until your palms and the soles of your feet are white and wrinkled like prunes, which means they're saturated with water. (It usually takes about 10-15 minutes -- just watch out for the amount of soap you use, which can send your skin back to the dryness drawing board if you use too much or a harsh type.) Also, try draping a wet washcloth over your face while you bathe. Then, as soon as you get out of the tub and towel off, apply a generous amount of lotion all over your body to seal in the moisture.

Prevent Dryness

Preventing dry skin is as important as treating it. "Once it's dry, it's more subject to getting even drier," Unger says. That's because dry skin is rough and irregular and loses more moisture than healthy, compact skin.

Here are some prevention tips to keep in mind:

  • If you don't want to give up hot baths, use bath oil.
  • If your lips start to feel dry, resist the temptation to lick them. Saliva is not a moisturizer. It removes oil and makes your lips even drier. Instead, you should use lip balm or petroleum jelly. Smoking makes lips dry, too.
  • Mild, unscented soap is what you want to use in the winter. Deodorant soap may make you feel cleaner, but it is harsh on the skin.
  • If you use the acne medication Retin-A (tretinoin) in a gel form, talk to your doctor about switching to the cream form. The gel contains alcohol, which dries the skin. The same goes for facial cleansing pads and rinses that have alcohol in them.
  • Be careful not to overuse products containing alpha-hydroxy acids. They exfoliate the top layer of the skin, which is good for dry skin, but they leave the new layer of skin unprotected against the bitter winds.
  • Try shaving with lotion instead of regular shaving cream, which may contain detergents.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. You won't have supple skin if you are dehydrated.

Originally published Jan. 28, 2002.

Medically updated Nov. 8, 2004.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors