Your Skin Can Become Dry, Cracked, and Damaged in the Winter — Here’s Why

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You step outside into snow-dusted streets, filling your lungs with the crisp air as you feel that satisfying crunch beneath your feet. It’s only later, when you look at your bare hands back inside, that you see (and feel) it: Red, raw, and rough skin, as itchy as it is uncomfortable.

It’s almost a given that your skin will get drier and flakier in the winter months — perhaps even after you’ve already slathered it with moisturizer. But why, specifically, do our hands, feet, and lips become cracked and irritated in the winter?

“The surrounding humidity is much lower in the winter,” says Dee Anna Glaser, a board-certified dermatologist at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “And just the coldness and [wearing] multiple layers of clothing can cause some irritation and expose the skin to dehydration.”

In short, a host of factors — from harsh winter winds to dry indoor heat — can irritate and sap moisture from your skin. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to relieve winter dryness and keep your skin healthy, even in the most frigid conditions.

What Causes Dry Winter Skin?

Simply put, our skin dries out when it doesn’t retain enough moisture. Frequent hot showers, for example, can strip away natural oils and damage the skin’s outermost layer, causing it to lose much-needed water.

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Winter poses its own unique set of challenges: For starters, low air humidity outside can create a perfect storm of conditions for dry skin, or xerosis. And people often crank up the heat during the winter months, lowering the humidity indoors, as well.

Our skin’s outermost layer, the epidermis, acts as a waterproof barrier that holds moisture inside — and keeps everything else out. You can think of the epidermis as a mosaic of roof shingles — made up of individual skin cells — bound together by lipids that function like glue or mortar, keeping those cells flat, smooth, and neatly arranged.

“When there’s a change in our environment, there’s actually a change in the way that our skin folds in its natural moisture,” says Glaser. “When [that happens], the mortar isn’t as strong, and it doesn’t behave as well.”

When the lipid-rich glue is loosened by winter’s low air humidity and dry indoor heat, that barrier breaks down, and the skin is less able to retain moisture. (It can also be damaged by the sun, harsh soaps, or, in some cases, underlying medical conditions.) Thanks to that acceleration in water loss, cracked, rough, flaking, and itchy skin can follow.

Other Causes of Dry Winter Skin

Other factors can cause dry winter skin: Frigid outdoor temps, harsh winds, and rain can all strip the skin’s natural, moisturizing oils.

Beyond that, taking hot showers or baths can also damage the skin’s outer layer. Scrubbing vigorously with a towel to dry off, as well as using harsh soaps, can contribute to skin damage, as well.

“Hot water is also bad for our skin and causes it to become dry and itchy,” says Steven Daveluy, a board-certified dermatologist and program director at the Wayne State University School of Medicine. “In the winter, people love the feeling of a hot shower, but it’s terrible for your skin.”

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To avoid drying your skin
and depriving yourself of a soothing shower, you might consider using lukewarm water, rather than hot, when bathing. Steering clear of sponges, scrub brushes, and cloths — or at least using them gingerly — can help, too, as can patting or blotting your skin when toweling dry.

Why Does Dry Skin Itch?

If you’ve ever experienced dry skin, you’ve probably seen cracks form on its surface. And even if your skin doesn’t look like the lunar surface, dry skin is still cracking at the microscopic level. That means that when your skin barrier breaks down from too little moisture, all sorts of particles can now seep through.

“Once the barrier is compromised, things from the outside world can get through and cause irritation and itch,” says Daveluy. “Since the deeper layers of the skin shouldn’t be exposed to the outside, [particles] in the environment trigger inflammation and irritate the nerves that cause itch.”

Those environmental exposures include air, water, soaps, detergents, and allergens — all of which can activate your immune system, potentially causing redness and swelling, and nervous system, eliciting the sensation of itch itself.

Why Do I Still Have Dry Skin Even When I Moisturize?

Even if you regularly reach for your favorite moisturizer, you can still suffer from dry winter skin. Moisturizers can coat the skin’s surface to seal in water, add proteins that help it attract moisture, or a combination, depending on the ingredients. If your skin is exposed to low humidity and other insults, however, it can still become parched.

“When we’re doing things that may harm our skin in the wintertime, we generally need to step up the moisturization,” says Glaser. “And oftentimes, we need to decrease the things that irritate or dry out our skin.”

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Typically, continues Glaser, the thicker the product, the more effective it will be in holding in the skin’s natural moisture. “If you look at something as thick as Vaseline jelly or Aquaphor healing ointment, those would be some of the most moisturizing things you could put on.”

Daveluy notes that while there are times when you might need to change the type of moisturizer you’re using, sometimes you just need to apply it more frequently.

How to Treat Dry Skin in Winter

Here are some tried-and-true techniques for combatting dry winter skin:

  • Use a humidifier at home or at work. (“My quick rule of thumb is that if you’re getting static shocks when you touch things at home, like doorknobs, your humidity is too low,” says Daveluy.)

  • Use lukewarm water — or the coldest water you can stand — whenever taking a shower or bath. Afterward, pat your skin (never rub) when toweling dry.

  • Keep your showers short, if possible; more exposure to hot water can cause more damage.

  • Apply moisturizer right away after bathing or washing your hands. This can help fill the gaps between your skin cells — and lock in moisture while your skin is still damp.

  • Drink plenty of water, since the moisture in your skin depends on the hydration of your body.

When all else fails, it’s never a bad idea to seek out professional advice, either. “A board-certified dermatologist can also help you find a skincare regimen for the winter months,” adds Daveluy.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dry Skin

Can Dry Skin Cause Acne?

Acne is often linked to oily skin, but people with dry skin can still get breakouts, too. In fact, scientists found that having dry skin can cause excessive oil production that can contribute to acne flare-ups, according to a 2011 study published in Dermato Endocrinology.

If you have acne and dry skin, though, don’t despair: Following a gentle skincare routine, hydrating regularly, and avoiding harsh products can keep your skin vibrant — while also keeping breakouts at bay.

Do Humidifiers Help with Dry Skin?

Indeed, scientists and dermatologists have found that humidifiers do actually help your skin better retain moisture. A study published in the Korean Journal of Dermatology found that humidifiers can positively impact your skin’s hydration and skin barrier function.

Can I Still Treat Dry Skin Under My Beard?

Just like you can get dry, flaky skin on your scalp, the skin beneath your beard can also become parched. (In some cases, you might experience beard dandruff.) Luckily, proper skin care, including exfoliation, washing, and moisturizing, can help keep the skin under your beard from getting dry and irritated.

“If you’re feeling dry and have a fair density of hair, you probably want to use one of those lotions or oils and [comb] it through the hair,” says Glaser. “It’s the hair trapping what you’re trying to get down there.”

Is Dry Skin a Sign of Pregnancy?

Dry skin can be common for pregnant woman, particularly during the early stages of pregnancy. That’s because hormonal changes can rob your skin of oil and elasticity, manifesting as dry and itchy skin.

“Pregnant women need to moisturize, also, and really avoid things that are irritating to their skin and take good care of their skin,” says Glaser. “But if anybody is having an unusual amount of dryness or itchiness, they may want to see their doctor to make sure there’s nothing driving that.”

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