Windburn On The Skin: What Causes It + How To Treat & Prevent It

mbg Beauty Director By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director. Previously she worked at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and
Woman who is outside in a hat in the cold

We are deep into fall, nearly blending into winter weather. And as we are still dealing with COVID-19, limited access to indoor gyms, and probable quarantine restrictions for many areas, continuing to exercise outdoors seems inevitable for many of us. And with outdoor exercise during colder, windier seasons comes one very frustrating skin ailment: windburn. 

If you've experienced it, you know it's not something you want to deal with regularly. So, here, we spoke with skin care experts on what it is and exactly what to do about it. Read on, and then enjoy your future outdoor workouts—irritation-free. 

What is windburn, and what causes it?

Windburns are skin irritations triggered by the weather. "Windburn is a painful, inflamed reaction of the skin that results after time in cold and windy conditions. Essentially the dry, cold air can strip moisture from the skin, leaving it irritated and dry," says board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. "It looks similar to a sunburn: Skin is painful, discolored like red or ashy, extra sensitive, and can even flake or peel." 

When the weather is dry, your skin is more susceptible to transepidermal water loss, a skin phenomenon where water in the skin literally evaporates out of it into the air around you. "This occurs when the combination of wind, low humidity, and low-temperature damages the skin barrier," agrees board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. "This weakens the skin's ability to protect itself, leading to red, dry, scaly skin." Hadley also adds that windburn isn't just an aesthetic issue: You will likely feel it as well. "It may feel warm and sensitive, and it may sting or burn," she says. 

Finally, there's another issue that may exacerbate windburns—its more aggressive cousin, sunburns. "Often sun exposure is also a trigger since people don't realize that ultraviolet radiation penetrates clouds and can cause sunburns even when the temperature is cold," Nazarian adds. 

Certified esthetician for Pomp and founder of Radiant Beings Wellness & Beauty Coaching Nicole Hatfield confirms this as well: "It is likely that windburn is also a combination of sunburn as well, as wind cools the skin and tricks us into staying in the sun as we don't notice ourselves burning."


How can you treat and prevent it?

Given the issue here is lack of moisture, leading to a compromised skin barrier and inflammation, really the solution should come as no surprise to you: Hydrate, soothe, and strengthen the barrier. You can do this all with a combination of the three types of moisturizers. "Look for a moisturizer that contains humectants to hydrate, emollients to support the skin barrier, and occlusives to lock in the moisture," says King. 

She goes on to explain that, "Humectants, like hyaluronic acid and glycerine, are mostly low molecular weight substances that bind water into the stratum corneum, but they need to be used along with the other components in order to retain the water content."

From there, you'll additionally need emollients: These are ingredients that prioritize your barrier. "Emollients are saturated and unsaturated variable-length hydrocarbons, which help in skin barrier function, membrane fluidity, and cell signaling, leading to overall improvement in skin texture and appearance," she says. "Examples include cholesterol, squalene, fatty acids, and ceramides." She also adds that you can use ingredients to temper inflammation: "Use soothing ingredients like aloe vera or oatmeal," says King. 

Then, seal it all in so water and these nutrients don't escape into the cold air. "Occlusives are oils and waxes that form an inert layer on the skin and physically block transepidermal water loss. Examples include beeswax, oils, silicones, lanolin, and zinc oxide," she says. 

Prevention, the experts note, is all about physical protection. Be mindful to wear a mineral sunscreen, like zinc oxide formulas, to create an occlusive barrier that will also aid in sun protection. You should also be mindful to wear proper face and body covering: "Prevent windburn by wearing protective clothing, like a scarf around your face," says Hatfield. Given we are all wearing masks while outdoors at the moment, the latter point should be much easier. 

Finally, if you notice you are suffering from a bout of windburn, be extra gentle with your skin for the time being: "Don't pick or peel the skin," says King. "And avoid ingredients that may be irritating—like alcohol, or ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, or glycolic acid—until the skin has healed."

The takeaway.

As indoor workouts and gyms are becoming a less likely reality this fall and winter, there's a decent chance that we will see an uptick in windburns and skin irritations. If you find yourself running outdoors in dry, cold climates, be mindful of how you physically protect your skin and how to tend to it afterward, and you should be able to protect yourself from an irradiated, inflamed face. 


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