If your skin is feeling dry and irritated this winter, know you’re not alone. While “winter skin” isn’t an official medical condition, it is a pretty common problem this time of year. According to Board Certified Dermatologist, Dr. Neda Mehr of Pure Dermatology in Newport Beach California, the environment is the main cause of winter skin, but many of us don’t take the proper precautions to make the situation better either. So, if you’re sitting and scratching your head (and probably your legs) about what to do, know winter skin is treatable and preventable.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Neda Mehr, MD FAAD is a Board-Certified Dermatologist and founder of Pure Dermatology in Newport Beach California. She is a graduate of the Medical School at UC Irvine.
Why Winter Affects Your Skin
Dr. Mehr says that combining the cold, dry air outside with extreme heat inside does a number on our skin. “These factors cause the fats (aka “lipids”) in our skin to evaporate. This removes the protective barrier of our skin, which compromises the two main functions of our skin, which are keeping germs and allergens out and moisture in.”
When the barrier is removed, that’s when things really start to go haywire, she explains. “Our broken skin allows the allergens from the outside world (especially fragrances in moisturizers, body washes, perfumes, detergents, dryer sheets, and fabric softeners), into the inside world of our body, leading to the over-activation of our immune system.”
It turns out that our bodies believe these chemicals are germs. “The activation of our immune cells leads to an inflammatory response inside of our deeper skin layers, which is the leading cause of skin irritation,” says Dr. Mehr.
Things To Avoid in the Winter
While it feels good to take a hot shower on a cold day, Dr. Mehr says a lukewarm temperature is best to avoid drying out your skin.
As for fluffy, freshly-scented bedding and towels, that’s also a “no” this time of year. The Doctor suggests nixing dryer sheets and fabric softeners and swapping out your current laundry detergent for a “free and clear” product instead.
Unfortunately, the same rule also applies to any scented product that touches your skin. Those fragrances are more likely to cause flare-ups.
Moisturize Twice a Day
Dr. Mehr recommends applying moisturizer within the first three minutes of getting out of the shower so the product can act as a second skin and seal the moisture back into the skin. Then, go for round two before bed, especially if you live in a colder climate and are exposed to lots of heaters. “If the heater is on overnight, it will not dehydrate your skin and lead to irritation since you have your second skin moisturizer on board,” she says.
Drink Plenty of Water
Yes, you can buy yourself a fancy new Swell bottle or Hydro Flask guilt-free. Hot summers aren’t the only time you need to hydrate, Dr. Mehr explains. “Remember, drink lots of water to rehydrate from the inside out.”
Exfoliating causes new cell-turnover, allowing your products, especially moisturizers, to work better, but doing it too often is counterproductive. Dr. Mehr shares that once a week is enough.
She also suggests being mindful of how you exfoliate. Don’t use a loofah (they harbor bacteria) or a scratchy scrub. Dr. Mehr recommends a silicone body scrubber because it improves lymphatic drainage and is gentle on the skin.
You should also keep in mind that timing is everything. Avoid exfoliating your legs immediately after shaving because you’ll be doing double duty and causing irritation. “If patients are experiencing dry skin,” she says, “It’s best to avoid exfoliating and moisturize immediately after shaving to reinstate the skin's natural oil barrier.”
When to Call For Help
While winter skin is pretty common, your symptoms could also indicate a more serious condition that you can’t treat yourself at home. Dr. Mehr says if symptoms of any kind don't clear up after a couple of days, or “if you have scabbing or oozing of the skin, which could be a sign of infection,” it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a dermatologist.