Winter Skin Care Tips for Preventing Dry, Cracking Skin

Dec. 21, 2021

With winter comes snow-filled fun, like sledding and ice skating, but it also comes with dry and cracking skin.

Winter Skin Care Routine to Avoid Dry, Cracking Skin

A good moisturizer can help, but your skin might already be damaged before you can see the signs from the cold and dry climate and the artificial indoor heat.

Thankfully, there’s still hope through different steps to keep your skin hydrated, healthy and looking fabulous. 

We sat down with UC Health skin care experts Dana Amundsen and Keysha Livisay Smith to discuss causes, symptoms, and complications of winter dry skin, and tips for prevention, as well as how to deal with dry, cracking skin during the cold and dry winter season.

Causes of Dry Skin During Winter

“Moisture loss is always a concern in the winter,” said Dana Amundsen, Licensed Esthetician and Skin Care Specialist at UC Health.  “The wind and cold air outside and the forced air heating in buildings can really dry out the skin.”

Here are a few additional things that might cause dry skin in the winter:

  • Drop in temperature and humidity outside, causing the air to become cold and dry, which results in the moisture on your skin evaporating and drying out.
  • Heating your home using fireplaces, space heaters, wood-burning stoves and central heating causes the humidity inside to decrease.
  • Overly long, hot baths or showers strip your skin of natural oils, causing it to lose moisture more quickly. Swimming in a heavily chlorinated pool can have the same effect.
  • Harsh detergents and soaps, like many common shampoos, are designed to remove oil, including the skin’s natural oils, leading to dryness.

Symptoms of Dry Skin

“Dry, cracking skin in the winter is usually temporary, though it can turn into a prolonged condition,” said Keysha Livisay Smith, MSN, APRN-C, LME, Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, in the Dermatology Department. “The signs and symptoms vary with a person’s overall health, age, time spent outdoors and geographical location.”

The following are some of the symptoms of dry skin:

  • Skin looks and feels rough
  • Skin feels tight, especially after swimming, bathing or showering
  • Slight or even severe peeling, scaling or flaking
  • Itching (pruritus)
  • Ashy, gray skin
  • Redness
  • Small cracks or fine lines
  • Deep cracks that may bleed

Complications That May Occur Due To Dry Skin

Dry or cracking skin is usually harmless, however, in some cases, failure to attend to it may lead to eczema (atopic dermatitis) or infections. If you are prone to eczema, dehydrated skin may trigger the condition, causing inflammation, cracking and redness. Moreover, bacteria could enter cracks in the skin and lead to infections.

The likelihood of these complications occurring is higher if the normal protective mechanisms of your skin are severely compromised. For example, deep fissures or cracks may form on severely dry skin, and if these cracks or fissures open and bleed, bacteria could enter.

Home remedies and lifestyle changes are usually effective in preventing and treating dry skin; however, if you observe the following, see your health care provider:

  • Excessive redness
  • Skin is unresponsive to home remedies and lifestyle changes
  • Large areas of peeling or scaling skin
  • Scratching skin causes infections or sores
  • Itchy skin interferes with your sleep
Quick Tips to Avoid Dry Winter Skin

Despite these complications, there are easy ways to prepare and deal with dry skin this winter. Seven steps are outlined below.

1.   Prepare Your Home for Good Winter Skincare

Using a humidifier can increase levels of moisture in the air, which can create an environment in which your skin stays hydrated. Humidifiers emit a fine mist into your room to achieve an optimal humidity of between 40 to 60 percent. Place the humidifier in the room where you spend the most time, which for most people, is the bedroom.

Like most, you might be spending a lot more time at home due to the pandemic, or simply because you prefer to stay indoors during the winter. Whatever your reasoning, consider adding a humidifier to your home, in addition to adding skincare products to keep your skin moisturized. Thought it might be tempting to keep it cozy, it is suggested that you keep your thermostat to a low or moderate heat to maintain an optimal level of moisture in your home. With more moisture in the air, you are at less of a risk from suffering from extremely dry and cracking skin.

2.   Maintain a Diet That Promotes Healthy, Hydrated Skin

Your skin health is directly connected with your gut health, so it’s important to maintain a diet that supports good skin health. The following are some of the best foods for maintaining healthy skin:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon- Omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, vitamin E and high-quality protein keep your skin moisturized and help reduce inflammation.
  • Avocadoes- A good source of vitamins E and C and beneficial fats – all of which promote healthy skin. They also have compounds that help prevent sun damage.
  • Almonds- Rich in protein, selenium, vitamin E, essential fats and zinc.
  • Sunflower seeds- High in nutrients such as vitamin E, which has protective antioxidant effects on the skin.
  • Sweet potatoes- Contains a lot of beta carotene, a natural sun block.
  • Bell peppers- An excellent source of vitamin C and beta carotene – both of which have protective antioxidant effects on the skin. Vitamin C helps create collagen, the structural protein that strengthens your skin.

3.   Drink Lots of Water

Drinking plenty of water has a powerful and positive impact on your skin health — and on your overall health.  Making sure you drink a lot of water is the most natural way to ensure that your skin is healthy and radiant. By drinking lots of water, you’ll notice:

  • It keeps you refreshed, hydrated and helps keep your skin elastic.
  • It helps balance your skin pH level, keeping it healthy.
  • It flushes toxins from your body that may otherwise cause skin health problems such as acne.
  • It helps tighten up sagging skin.

For most adults, about eight glasses of water a day should be an adequate mount  to stay hydrated.  Try to limit your intake of caffeinated and alcoholic drinks, as they can have diuretic effects that may dehydrate your skin, leaving it more prone to dryness and cracking.  

4.   Exfoliate Your Skin

Exfoliation is essential to skin care, and failure to to so leads to dry skin, regardless of how much cream or serum you apply.

“Scrub off summer damage from the sun, saltwater and chlorine,” said Keysha.  “Use oil-based exfoliators to not only rejuvenate the skin, but also to hydrate.  For best results, do not exfoliate more than twice a week.”

For light exfoliation, use a gentle scrub with lactic acid or a mild glycolic.   If your skin is severely dry, swap an exfoliator for a gentler option such as a wet washcloth. In addition, limit your use of wrinkle-fighting skin products that double as exfoliators as they may worsen dry skin. Moisturizers and serums are more effective on exfoliated skin because they penetrate the layers of the skin more easily.

5.   Use Antioxidant Serum

Serums are among the few skin care products that are useful year-round. You can use an antioxidant serum throughout the year as long as it does not contain alcohol. Regardless of the climate, free-radical oxidative stressors attack the skin and cause premature fine lines, collagen breakdown and sunspots.

You can mitigate the damage that free-radical oxidative stressors cause by applying vitamin C formula before applying heavier skin care products in the morning.  Also, remember to cover your skin with SPF 30 sunscreen every day, even when it is cold or overcast.

6.   Use Moisturizing Face Cream and Gentle Cleansers

Switching to a moisturizing face cream is one of the most critical steps to prevent and to deal with dry, crackling skin, yet it’s one of the most overlooked.

“Instead of lotions, opt for creams that contain hyaluronic acid and ceramides,” said Dana. “These products help prevent the breakdown of the skin barrier in the winter.  Steer clear of face washes that contain ingredients, such as additives and fragrances, which have drying properties. Instead, use face washes that contain oatmeal or formulated chamomile. Go for gentle cleansers that won't strip natural oils from your skin.”

7.   Develop a Regular Winter Skincare Routine

Develop a winter-specific skincare routine. In addition to a moisturizer and face serum, apply gentle cream, like avocado treatment, on your eyelids and under your eyes.

Long, hot showers can feel great on chilly winter evenings, but they shouldn’t be a regular part of your winter skincare routine. Consider rinsing for no more than a few minutes with the shower on warm rather than hot water, which can excessively dehydrate the skin.

“Swap harsh body washes and irritating soaps with creamy cleansers,” said Keysha.  “Use something with ceramides, lanolin and oil to help your skin retain moisture throughout the night. Apply thick moisturizer immediately after stepping out of the shower.”

Finally, use a heavy-duty moisturizer on your lip and hands, especially the cuticles. If your skin feels too dry, consider using a hydrating sheet mask once a week before you go to bed, and be sure to avoid products with clay or charcoal.

Follow These Tips to Keep Your Skin Hydrated and Radiant During the Winter

Dry, cracking skin in the winter is unpleasant, feels uncomfortable and, in some cases, may lead to further skin problems. Keep in mind that following any one of the tips in this article will help keep your skin hydrated but adopting all of them into a healthy skin lifestyle and routine will be much more successful in preventing your skin from becoming excessively dry in the cold season.