Published December 10, 2013
Dry skin is dry skin, right? Nope. Everyone's complexion is a little bit different, so when cold air hits, your best defense (and repair) depends on your skin type, lifestyle, habits, and even your skin tone. From freckles to flakes, we looked at some of the most common characteristics of winter skin, and asked the experts about how to deal with them safely and effectively. Here's how to keep the skin on your face—and body—soft, supple, and strong, all season long.
If your skin is fair
People with fair skin have less pigment and less natural protection against the sun's UV rays. And while they may wear sunscreen in the summer, some people don't know it's important in cold weather too. "Your face is still exposed in the wintertime, and the sun will still cause damage," says Dr. Chris Adigun, clinical assistant professor in the department of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City. Everyone can benefit from year-round use of a moisturizer with built-in sunscreen, she adds, but it's extra important for the fair skinned. (And it's not just about skin cancer risk: A 2013 Australian study found that people who wore sunscreen every day for nearly five years had fewer wrinkles and signs of aging than those who wore it less often.)
If your skin is freckled
The story is similar for people with freckles, which are basically the body's attempt to protect itself from previous UV damage, says Adigun. "Freckles don't really offer any benefits, and chances are you're only going to get more if you continue to expose your face or body to sunlight without sunscreen," she adds.
You may notice that your freckles seem to fade in the wintertime and look darker in the summer when you're spending more time in the sun, but that's no reason to skimp on your SPF routine year-round.
If your skin is olive-toned or dark
More pigment in the skin may mean more protection from the sun, but it can also put you at risk for long-term scarring from skin irritations such as acne and dry patches. This is called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, says Dr. Gary Goldenberg, assistant professor of dermatology at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, and it can last for months or even longer in people with dark skin. "It's a main reason for people coming in during the winter—not because they worry about the texture or dryness of their skin, but because they're more concerned with the actual appearance."
Over-the-counter bleaching creams can help large, prominent dark spots fade more quickly, he says, but the best cure is always prevention: Moisturizing every day with a thick, creamy lotion can cut down on irritation and help keep skin looking smooth and even.
If your skin is dry
Ramp up your moisturizing, says Adigun: If you use a lightweight lotion in the summer, switch to a heavier cream or ointment. Get one that you scoop out of a jar or squeeze from a tube; pump formulas are often diluted with water or alcohol, reducing the ability to seal in moisture. Apply every time you shower or wash your face, says Goldenberg, while skin is still damp, and use lukewarm water (not hot, which can irritate skin), keep your shower as short as possible, and choose gentle, fragrance-free soaps or cleansers. (Some experts suggest moisturizing before you get in the shower, too!)
And skip the washcloth, says Adigun. "You really just need to use soap on your underarms and your groin; you don't need to lather up and scrub all over your body—all that does is remove your skin's natural oils."
If your face is flaky
Sunburn, wind burn, or severe dryness can cause your skin to crack and flake off, even if you're using moisturizer regularly. To help remove that damaged top layer of skin, try an exfoliating face wash with citric acid. (Chemical exfoliants are less irritating than physical ones, like rough, scratchy beads or grains.) If your skin stays dry throughout the winter, stick to exfoliating just once or twice a week.
If you have combination skin
"This is my most challenging group during the winter," says Adigun; "They'll notice that their usually normal areas become dry and their usually oily areas become normal, and they may need to treat them both separately." She suggests applying a light moisturizer to the T-zone—forehead, nose, and chin—and a heavier one to dryer areas, like the cheeks and around the eyes and lips. Dry patches may even need an ointment like petroleum jelly, which can help seal moisture in and form a protective barrier against the elements. (If it feels too greasy to use during the day, she adds, try it at night.)
If you have chapped lips
Dry skin doesn't only happen on your cheeks; it also commonly manifests itself as chapped, cracked lips, as well. A lip balm with cocoa butter, vitamins A and E, beeswax, petrolatum, or dimethicone will help soothe and repair broken skin—but to make it even more effective, moisten lips with cool water before applying. This can make the top layer of your skin more permeable and help seal in moisture, says Dr. Marina Peredo, founder of Spatique Medical Spa in Smithtown, New York. A moisturizing facial mask (look for one that contains dead sea salt) can also help slough away flaky skin and make your lips soft and smooth.
If your skin is greasy
If you have oily skin you may actually catch a bit of a break in the wintertime, says Goldenberg, but that doesn't mean you can slack on your skin-care routine. If you normally use toner or astringent on your face to keep oil away, you may find that you don't need these extra treatments over the winter. But, even if you've never used moisturizer in the summertime, it's a good idea to start when the temps (and humidity) drops. "I recommend something nice and light, like Cetaphil or CeraVe, to moisturize their face and body after bathing," says Goldenberg.
If your skin is very sensitive
Sensitive skin gets inflamed very easily during harsh winter months, causing raw, red cheeks in paler complexions and long-lasting hyper-pigmentation spots in darker ones. To keep skin looking and feeling supple and smooth, choose products that are free of colors and fragrances—not just face and body washes, but detergents and fabric softeners, as well. You'll want to find a soap-free, non-foaming face wash that won't strip away your skin's natural oils. For extremely dry and sensitive skin, try wiping off cleanser with a soft cloth or tissue, rather than rinsing with water.
If you are prone to breakouts
"With these patients, we want to strike a delicate balance," says Goldenberg: "We want to treat the acne, but that may dry out the skin—so we also need to add moisture back at the same time." He recommends a gentle, non-foaming facial cleanser and a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer that won't clog pores. If you're using a retinoid product for its acne-fighting benefits, you may find that everyday use is too irritating in the winter. Instead of applying it straight to your face, try mixing a pea-size amount with your facial moisturizer. If that's still too harsh, scale back to using it just two to three times a week until spring—you'll still get the skin-smoothing benefits without the extreme drying effects.
If you have eczema or psoriasis
Conditions like ezcema and psoriasis are prone to winter flare-ups, when it's hard to keep skin moist. Keep showers short and luke-warm, and pat yourself dry (rather than rubbing) with a towel and apply moisturizer immediately, says Goldenberg. You may be able to treat flare-ups with an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, or you may need to see your dermatologist for a stronger formula. Experts recommend keeping stress levels low and getting a flu shot, since these conditions may be linked to immune function. (In fact, a 2001 study found the skin's ability to retain water is reduced during stress.) The lack of sunlight in the winter can make psoriasis worse. In severe cases, phototherapy with UV light, two to three times a week, may help.
If you spend a lot of time outdoors
Runners, skiers, and anyone who spends hours outside can take a beating from the effects of wind and harsh, cold air on their skin. "For those people, it's actually smart to put something like Aquaphor or Vaseline on their skin before they go out," says Goldenberg. Cheeks and lips may be the obvious spots, he says, but don't forget the inside and outside of the nostrils, too; this will help keep nasal passages moist. A broad-spectrum sunscreen is very important, too, says Dr. Adigun, especially when you're spending time at high altitudes where the air is thinner (and UV rays, therefore, are stronger) or you're surrounded by snow, which can reflect sunlight onto your face.
If you spend a lot of time indoors
Indoor heating systems sap a lot of the natural moisture from the air, so even if you're not outdoors you can still experience the drying effects of winter. Running a humidifier in your home or office can help, says Dr. Michelle Tarbox, assistant professor of dermatology at Saint Louis University, but it's important to change filters as often as is recommended, and to use distilled water instead of tap. Drink lots of water throughout the day to counteract the effects of caffeine you may be guzzling at your desk or the alcoholic beverages you're enjoying at happy hour—both of which can be dehydrating and may ultimately lead to dry skin.
If you are 50 or older
Even if you never had dry skin, chances are you'll notice a change as you get older. "The sebaceous glands all over our body that produce oil actually slow down and shrink after middle age, but we usually don't alter our bathing habits to compensate for that," says Adigun. "We continue to scrub ourselves head to toe, and that's when I see a lot of patients in their 60s and 70s experiencing eczema or severe dry skin for the first time in their lives."
If you have dry, itchy patches that were never there before, she says, switch to a gentler facial cleanser and body wash, and slather on a creamier moisturizer, head to toe, after showering or washing your face. Scale back on anti-aging products that contain skin-tightening retinoids or alpha hydroxy acids—using them just two or three times a week will still be effective, says Adigun—and make sure you're not overlapping products (like a cleanser and a cream) with these ingredients.
If your kids' skin gets dry
Babies and young children may not have the same issues as older adults, but their skin is also prone to winter dryness and even eczema that may go away as they grow up. They'll be tempted to scratch at their itchy skin, as well, which will only make the irritation worse. Prevent winter itch and flakiness by patting your kids dry with a towel and slathering on moisturizer immediately after their bath. Don't let them play in the water for a prolonged period of time, and use as little soap as necessary, says Adigun.
"Kids, believe it or not, don't have a lot of bacteria living on their skin. The glands that produce body odor, where bacteria live, aren't active until puberty—so kids really don't require a lot of soap or scrubbing to get them clean."