This Is Why Dry Skin Gets Worse In The Winter + 9 Tips To Maintain Moisture
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and wellness. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
If your skin withers up at the very first signs of winter's chill, welcome to this safe space. Dry skin in winter is incredibly common, but that doesn't make it any less aggravating: Dehydrated, flaky skin can quickly feel itchy and uncomfortable. You may know to switch up your skin care routine with the seasons—subbing your lightweight hydrators for butter-thick creams—but truly escaping winter dryness takes a more multifaceted approach.
Good news! We've spoken to several experts about this very topic and have quite the collection of winter skin care pointers. Here, find every tip imaginable to get rid of parched skin, even in freezing temperatures.
Why dry skin gets worse in the winter.
Short answer? Cold, dry, weather can weaken your skin barrier function, and a weak barrier doesn't hold in water as well (a concept known as transdermal water loss).
You see, once the air faces a significant drop in moisture, that low humidity means water more easily evaporates into the air—if your skin barrier is compromised, that water is more likely to come from your skin. And if you oscillate between the frigid outdoors and indoor heat, it creates an environment that literally sucks the moisture out of your body.
"Most people also tend to increase the time spent in the shower as well as crank the water to nearly scalding hot levels to 'warm up,' and this literally strips the skin of moisture," says celebrity esthetician and dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar. Board-certified dermatologist Purvisha Patel, M.D., founder of Visha Skincare, seconds the warning: "Hot water evaporates faster," she told us about the ideal water temperature, and hot water also has the ability to strip the natural oils and lipids from your skin. Again, when your lipid barrier is continuously compromised, it's easier for water to evaporate into the arid air—and the cycle continues.
How to combat dry, wintry skin.
Here, our favorite tips to maintain supple skin throughout the winter season:
Take cooler or shorter showers.
As nice as it sounds to step into a steamy shower, you might want to turn down the heat. "Take lengthy showers in tepid water, staying under the water until your fingertips get wrinkled," says dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., FAAD. "This is a sign that you have tremendously rehydrated your skin."
If you can't bear the thought of no hot water, just make sure you aren't spending too long under the spray. "You can take shorter showers. That's a very simple way to change your habits," says physician James Hamblin, M.D., author of Clean: The New Science of Skin.
Sandwich your skin in body oil.
To protect your barrier even further, Aguilar recommends applying body oil before hopping in the shower. "One of my favorite rituals to care for dry, wintry skin is to apply body oil, especially grapeseed oil, to my entire body prior to jumping in the shower," she explains. "This oil barrier prevents excessive water loss and helps with any irritation." She then coats her skin with another layer of oil post-shower: "As soon as I step out of the shower, I mix grapeseed oil with my body moisturizer and lather up. You can feel and see the difference in your skin by doing this magical ritual," she says.
Moisturize, especially on damp skin.
Which brings us to our next point: After cleansing, you want to lock in that water with a high-quality moisturizer. Especially if you do rinse with hot water—since it evaporates faster, you have an even shorter window to trap in those precious droplets. When you layer your hydrating products, just make sure to leave your skin a little damp. "The humectants in your products, like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, will have an easier time holding on to moisture if you're providing it," says board-certified dermatologist Angelo Landriscina, M.D.
"Humectants are basically 'water magnets,'" says board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D., founder of SKINFIVE, about the ingredient category. "They work to help pull moisture from the air into the upper layer of your skin to keep the skin cells hydrated, plump with a firmness and bounce." But this can backfire, especially during winter: When humidity dips, humectants can actually pull water from the deeper layers of the dermis into the stratum corneum (or the outermost layer), which can leave your skin drier than before, as water can easily evaporate on the top layer of the skin.
That's why you especially want to apply humectants on damp skin during winter, as you want to give them the water they need to do their job properly. You'll also want to lock in that moisture with an occlusive layer, like a cream or oil, so the water on the top layer of your skin doesn't evaporate. For a few examples, we love hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and aloe vera.
Use hydrating, gentle cleansers.
You might not be able to get away with the same foamy wash you loved during the warmer months. A gentle scrub may be top-notch for dissolving summer sweat, but it might be way too abrasive for your wintry skin to handle. And if your cleanser is too stripping of your natural oils, it can weaken your skin barrier and lead to dry, uncomfortable skin.
Rather, opt for gentle washes that protect your barrier while helping remove daily grime. This goes for body care, too: "Ideal soaps are made without harsh sulfates like sodium lauryl sulfate, that can damage the skin barrier," board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., tells us. "I also love seeing soaps that are enriched with soothing, hydrating ingredients like milk, aloe, honey, and oatmeal." See here for our favorite face cleansers and body washes for dry skin.
Use a thicker moisturizer.
On that note, you might want to winterize your entire skin care routine: "One of the biggest mistakes people make with dry skin in the winter is sticking to their summer skin care routine," says Aguilar. For example: Those featherlight water creams might not cut it during the season's chill.
"Winter is the season for ingredients such as lipids, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, facial oils, and heavier creams," Aguilar adds. "All of these ingredients are naturally rich in fats that help prevent water loss and retain moisture, keeping our skin happy and healthy during the cold winter months." Find our favorite winter moisturizers here.
Take hydrating supplements.
Don't sleep on inside-out hydration. After doing everything you can to focus on moisture externally, sometimes that internal support is the missing piece you need. So in addition to drinking enough water (more on that later), you might want to focus on supplements that support the skin's lipid layer and moisture levels internally.*
Phytoceramides, for example, have been clinically shown to improve moisture levels: In one study, participants with dry skin who took a phytoceramide-rich wheat extract oil for three months saw up to a 35% improvement in skin hydration1; in another, participants saw improved skin hydration after just 15 days2.*
"Essential fatty acid supplements are also overlooked," says Aguilar, which typically come in the form of fish oil capsules. "Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which provide the building blocks to produce healthy cell membranes," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., about the best supplements for dry skin.* As a result, they help improve the integrity of the skin barrier and help the skin retain its moisture. One preclinical study even found that rats who were given fish oil had improved skin hydration3 after taking the healthy fats for 60 days.*
Use a humidifier.
"The winter weather may lack humidity and moisture in the air, but you can add your own humidity by bringing a humidifier into your home," says Aguilar. In fact, these little household tools can crank up the humidity closer to the ideal indoor range of about 40 to 50%. "If you don't think these make a difference, you should get a humidity meter and let those numbers do the talking," Aguilar notes. (You can find these meters online and in most home goods stores for about $10 to $20.)
If you don't have the nifty technology on hand, you can also try some DIY methods to increase the humidity in your home. Either way, your skin will thank you.
Drink more water.
No, "just drinking water" is not the only secret to a smooth, glowing complexion (no matter what celebrities may want you to believe), but hydrating your body internally does have advantages for your skin: Studies have shown that getting the recommended amount of water for your body increases the dermal layer4, thereby making your skin more hydrated.
And guess what? You might need to be more hydration conscious in the winter! As integrative medicine physician Dana Cohen, M.D., tells us, it's easier to focus on hydration during the summer, as many people associate sweat with needing to drink more water. In the winter (when you typically don't sweat as much), the urge to drink may get put on the back burner.
However, just because you might not be sweating as much doesn't mean you aren't losing fluids. "It's not because you're outside and sweating so much; it's that indoor environment in the winter we don't take into account,” Cohen explains. Meaning: Even if you aren't sweating buckets, that doesn't mean you aren't losing water to the air, so make sure to get your liquids in.
With both internal and external approaches, you can keep your skin aptly hydrated no matter the season. At the end of the day: It's all about keeping that precious water from evaporating into the frigid air.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.