I hate the winter. It’s not just the snow, or the cold, or the fact that we have to deprive ourselves of an extra hour of precious sunlight. What I loathe most about the winter is what it does to my skin.
As soon as people start putting up their Halloween decorations, my skin begins its metamorphosis. It transforms from the fairly average sensitive skin I have the rest of the year into something with the tone and texture of fiberglass insulation that you’d instruct your children to stay away from. It chaps, it flakes, and if I don’t constantly soak my face in facial oil, as if bringing a turkey, my skin gets so dry it actually hurts. And with each passing year, the winter skin situation gets a little worse.
Getting through the winter in the northeastern U.S. is hard enough without skin that peels like a poorly maintained barn door. So this year, I have decided that I am not doing this again. I need answers. Why does my skin seem to self-destruct the second the weather begins to turn — and what can I do about it?
I’d always assumed that dry skin just had to do with the cold — the lower the temperature, the drier the skin. But according to board-certified dermatologist Sarvenaz Zand, that’s not true: “I see so many more [patients with] dry, itchy rashes in October, November, and December than I do in January or February, in the dead of winter.”
Zand likens the sudden jump in skin dryness that people experience in the fall to animals shedding their summer fur for winter fur, which happens before the seriously cold winter hits. Similarly, we humans get our driest skin right when the seasons change when the humidity and temperature begin to drop, and a decrease in sunlight means we get less vitamin D, which is important for skin hydration.
In colder parts of the country, says Zand, “once you’re into February, your skin’s used to it. It’s in October and November where [our skin is] like, ‘what’s happening?’ And our skin freaks out a little.”
This is true for everyone, regardless of age — but people going through menopause or perimenopause may experience a gradual increase in dryness through their 40s and 50s and so might want to take extra steps to hydrate their skin.
And no matter what age you are, if you are dealing with frustratingly dry skin, the tips below should help.
Odds are high that if you’re bothered enough by your dry skin to be reading this article, you’re already moisturizing. But Zand recommends switching up your moisturizers this time of year. “Rather than using a light, water-based lotion, opt for heavier creams or oils that are designed for eczema relief or severely dry, sensitive skin,” she says. For lips, you can also try something heavier than your usual balm, like Vaseline, Aquaphor, beeswax, or shea butter, and apply it multiple times a day. You can also swap out your face washes, “going from a foamy cleanser to a creamy cleanser,” as foamy cleansers tend to be more drying.
But if you’ve tried all that and the skin on your chin is still peeling so badly that you refuse to make eye contact with anyone (including your dog), you might want to look into cutting down on drying products in your skincare routine. Zand advises using products like retinol, tretinoin, glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid only every other day. Once your dryness goes down and your skin acclimates, you can go back to using them every day.
I know what you’re thinking: “Nooooooo! Burning-hot showers are one of my favorite things in life! Aren’t I allowed to experience ANYTHING pleasurable between the months of November and March??” (OK, maybe that’s just what I’m thinking.) But while an absolutely steaming shower can feel nice on a frosty morning, “hot water strips your skin of its natural oils,” cautions Zand.
So try to keep showers as cool as you can stand them, and less than 10 minutes long. I know, I know. But we’re doing this for the cause.
Like probably a lot of you, I assumed that my skin dryness was linked to my shamefully low water intake. Between coffee, salty foods, and living my life as if I am trying to break a world record for Diet Pepsi consumption, it’s frankly a wonder that I didn’t disintegrate into a large, human-shaped pile of the sand long ago. But while drinking enough water is important for combating dry skin, it turns out that you cannot simply Poland Springs your way into healthy skin.
“If you're already drinking six to eight cups of water a day,” says Zand, “drinking more won't be helpful.” Instead, she suggests a diet with healthy fats, which contain essential fatty acids like omega-3s and omega-6s. “I recommend a lot of fatty fish, walnuts, olive oil, and then supplements like fish oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, chia seeds, flax seeds…any of these healthy oils are really good for our bodies and make a difference in hydrating our skin,” says Zand.
This one is so obvious it’s incredibly easy to forget — but it’s super important. “Once the hands get dry and rashy,” notes Zand, “they can take a long time to improve.” She recommends using gloves to wash dishes and do food prep, and apply a thick moisturizing cream to your hands every time you wash them. Go for a moisturizer that comes in a tub or tube — a cream that can be pumped will likely be too watery. Put a tub next to each of your sinks so you don’t have to think about it.
Humidifiers, for many of us, are part of the realm of illnesses — we bust them out for colds, sinus problems, or kids who are prone to bloody noses. But “keeping the air moist can keep your skin from drying out,” says Zand. “If you have severely dry, itchy winter skin it can be very helpful, particularly if you’re living in a snowy environment.” Try running a humidifier in your bedroom while you sleep, in your office while you work, or anywhere else you spend a lot of time.
I’ve started using a richer facial moisturizer and stepped away from the retinoids, and so far, so good — my skin has, for the first winter in recent memory, remained in one piece. So if anyone needs me, I’ll be over there by the humidifier, dreaming of spring (and the day when I am free to take some absolutely scorching hot showers).
There’s no single magic bullet (magic snowplow?) that can guarantee you’ll 100 percent avoid any dryness this winter. But being proactive about these steps can really help — my flake-free face and I are living proof of that. So if you’re prone to dry skin, give these tips a shot — you have nothing to lose but your irritated cheeks.
By Gabrielle Moss
Gabrielle Moss is the editor at Stripes. She's the author of Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of the '80s and '90s Teen Fiction. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Buzzfeed, Marie Claire, and elsewhere.