November 25, 2011
Dear Mayo Clinic:
What is it about winter that makes my skin change so drastically? Is there anything I can do to prevent my skin from becoming dry and irritated during the winter months?
Two big factors affect your skin during the winter: colder temperatures and a lack of moisture in the air. Both can damage unprotected skin. By following a few simple self-care steps, though, you can help ensure healthy skin, even during the toughest winter weather.
The weather changes that come with winter can have a huge effect on skin. First, the level of moisture in the air, or humidity, drops sharply in winter. The water that skin makes naturally to protect and seal itself is more quickly and easily lost into the air. That process causes skin to become drier and more cracked than normal, making it painful, itchy and prone to infection.
Second, when winter comes and the humidity drops, the temperature drops as well. Skin that is exposed to low temperatures becomes vulnerable to conditions like frostbite and pernio, a painful inflammation of small blood vessels in skin that happens in response to sudden warming from cold temperatures. Frostbite and pernio can be serious conditions, often affecting parts of the body — such as ears, chin, lips, fingertips, toes and the tip of the nose — that are located far from core body heat.
Other skin problems that can result from winter weather include an increase in dandruff and flare-ups of dermatitis, an inflammation that can lead to swollen, red, itchy skin. In addition, the risk of sunburn is high during the winter because ultraviolet light from the sun is intensified when it reflects off snow, making exposed skin extremely vulnerable to sun damage.
There is much you can do to lower your risk of having these skin problems in the winter. First, cover up. Hats, mittens and scarves aren't just for kids. Using them to protect your skin from the cold can help keep skin healthy. If your clothing gets wet when you're outdoors, change as soon as possible because damp clothing against your skin can cause it to soften and break down.
Second, get into the habit of moisturizing your skin every day. Look for a hypoallergenic lotion. Avoid moisturizers that have strong perfumes, abrasives or glitter. If a moisturizer seems to irritate your skin, stop using it right away and switch to another brand or formula.
Third, when outdoors, wear sunscreen, especially if you're involved in a snowy activity such as skiing, sledding or snowshoeing. If you're concerned about a lack of vitamin D — which you can get naturally from the sun's ultraviolet light — talk to your doctor about ways to include vitamin D in your diet or through a supplement.
If dandruff is a problem, over-the-counter shampoos can be helpful. Buy more than one brand and switch from time to time. Alternating the brands is important because after a while dandruff becomes immune to one medication. If you occasionally use a different brand, the medication in the shampoo will be more effective. When you apply dandruff shampoo, don't just put it on your hair. Gently rub the shampoo directly on your scalp and leave it there for five to 10 minutes, so the medication has a chance to work.
Finally, using a humidifier in your home during the winter can help add moisture to the air, easing dry skin problems. Just remember to change the filters and water according to the directions, because humidifiers that aren't cleaned properly can lead to infection and other illnesses.
— Dawn Davis, M.D., Dermatology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.