7 Steps to Keeping Your Skin Healthy Through Winter

We know that winter’s harsh weather can wreak havoc on your complexion. But why does cold, dry air leads to dehydrated and flaky skin?

In frigid conditions, the skin is less able to protect itself. This can lead to cracks in the outer layer of skin, loss of hydration, and ultimately, inflammation.

In addition to dehydrated and flaky skin, reduced daylight hours and more time spent indoors conspire to put a damper on your natural glow.

Instead of suffering through winter skin woes, here’re our 7 steps to keeping your skin healthy through winter.

1. Strategically Switch Your Cleanser

You might love the feeling of working up some suds when washing your face. However, come winter, your skin can start to feel tight within minutes of rinsing off your soap-based cleanser.

Foamy, lathering facial cleansers and hot water might be fine for warmer months, but they combine with cold weather to make skin more sensitive. That’s because these soaps have an alkaline pH, whereas our skin's pH is acidic. The alkalinity of soap-based cleansers can strip away your skin's acid mantle, which is the barrier that protects it from drying out.

Instead of your standard face wash, make a seasonal switch to an extremely gentle, soap-free, non-lathering cleanser with a neutral pH—these don't disturb the acidity of your skin and are much less drying.

Some good winter cleansers for all skin types are:

  • Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel ($14): Suitable for even oily skin types without being drying, this gel texture cleanser is slightly exfoliating.

  • Dermalogica UltraCalming Cleanser ($42): Slightly creamy, this sulfate-free cleanser is even more moisturizing and claims to help heal irritated skin.

  • Spectro Jel Cleanser ($20): Spectro Derm is a great drugstore option that’s specifically formulated with a neutral pH and without potentially irritating ingredients.

What About Cleansing Balms?

I’m not a huge fan since attempting to remove every trace of oil afterward can cause unnecessary irritation to your skin. And, if residue remains, it can create a barrier that prevents your moisturizer or other products from penetrating.

If you’re someone who finds the bubbles and lather of soap particularly satisfying, you might find it difficult to switch to a non-foaming cleanser. However, remember that suds don’t actually increase your clean! Additionally, it's actually a good idea to use a soap-free cleanser year-round, not just in winter. That’s because the best thing is to treat your skin like it's sensitive, even if it's not.

2. Clear Away Dead Skin Cells

You might think that you should skip exfoliation during the winter, but a little exfoliation can actually help the dry skin by removing the buildup of dead skin cells that can block moisturizing ingredients from getting through.

Sensitive skin does best with fruit enzymes, which are the most gentle—they're already in the Mario Badescu cleanser I mentioned above.

If your skin is more resilient, you can try acids. Lactic acid is one of my favorites as it's quite gentle. The Miracle Worker ($35) cleanser by Philosophy includes exfoliating lactic acid and also doubles as a face mask.

There is also the option of manual exfoliation—just remember to stay away from any products that include seeds, nuts, husks, or pits, which can scratch skin and further irritate your complexion.

Instead, look for an exfoliant with silica beads. Or, you can stick to a regular washcloth rubbed in gentle, circular motions with your favorite (non-foaming) cleanser.

Whichever your preferred texture (scrubby beads, textured cloth, creamy enzyme mask, or liquid peel), go gently! Overzealous scrubbing or peeling can overstimulate oily skin and leave dry skin feeling even drier.

The best time to exfoliate? During your night time regime, as skin doesn't have to contend with UV rays afterward. Follow with a layer of serum or moisturizer.

3. Layer on the Moisture

There are three types of moisturizing ingredients, each providing important hydration and protection from harsh winter weather:

  1. Humectants attract and hold on to water—examples are glycerin and hyaluronic acid. You want these ingredients to be closest to your skin as the first layer.

  2. Emollients are skin softeners will sink in and help bind cells together, making your skin feel more smooth and comfortable. Examples of emollients are jojoba oil and shea butter.

  3. Occlusives block the water in your skin from evaporating. Examples of occlusives include petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and lanolin. You want to make sure your occlusive layer (say, a face oil or oil-based moisturizer) comes last since it does the job of locking in the moisture.

Now, your favorite brand’s cosmetic chemists have already carefully blended moisturizers to have a combination of these ingredients, so you don't have to worry too much about layering them on in the right order. This is an important reason why I prefer to purchase a product instead of slathering myself in ingredients that are found in a kitchen. However, if you’re going the natural route, be sure to apply anything oily, such as coconut oil, as the last step. Otherwise, you risk locking moisture out instead of trapping it next to your skin.

Once you’ve decided on a moisturizing product, did you know you have a three-minute window for best results?

Always smooth lotion on the damp skin or moisture will start to disappear before you can lock it in. Additionally, try to moisturize with the bathroom door closed. Doing so maintains the humidity, giving any humectants in your cream or lotion extra moisture to pull into your skin.

4. Don’t Ditch Your SPF

Sure, you may not see as much of the sun during the next few months, but UVA rays—the aging and cancer-causing rays that penetrate through windows and clouds, and into the deepest layer of skin—are still reaching your skin throughout winter.

They don’t just increase your risk of skin cancer, either. UV rays can interfere with skin-barrier function, reduce ceramide levels, and prevent skin from holding onto moisture.

The solution? Use a lotion with SPF 30 or higher every morning and consider a powder block, such as Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF 45 ($30), for touching up your protection throughout the day.

5. Protect Your Lips

Ever have a cold or stuffy nose and notice that the corners of your mouth start to crack? That’s because while you’re busy mouth-breathing, the digestive enzymes in saliva are breaking down that delicate skin. Additionally, our lips have no oil glands of their own, which is why they chap and crack so badly in winter.

To keep your lips balmy, avoid products with added ingredients that are meant to be tasty or fragrant, as they can also be drying. Instead, look for ingredients like shea butter and natural sunflower oil.

Don’t forget to give your lips a scrub once or twice a week, too. You don't have to buy a specialty scrub, either. Simply combine plain Vaseline with a bit of baking soda (or sugar) and about a teaspoon of water, then carefully scrub this mixture onto your lips in a circular motion with a soft bristle toothbrush. Doing so gets rid of excess skin for smooth lips that are ready to be hydrated.

If you have severely cracked lips that require special treatment, a 1% hydrocortisone cream can help. However, if you find that painful cracks don’t clear up after a week, visit your dermatologist for treatment.

6. Humidifiers Are Helpful

When temperatures drop, the moisture in the air does too. Because of this, heaters become both your savior and your scourge—they keep you warm but also dry out your epidermis.

Solution: Use a humidifier to add moisture back into the air. Not only will it keep you from feeling like a mummy, turning it on at night allows your pores to open up, making topical nighttime solutions even more effective. Even better? A humidifier also clears your sinuses, so it's a triple whammy against dry winter skin!

7. Finally, Swear Off Super-Hot Showers

Sure, there’s almost nothing more blissful than zoning out in a steaming hot shower, with temperatures as high as the dial will go until you run out of hot water. However, doing so is darn bad for your skin.

Excessively hot water strips the skin of its natural oils. And because the skin is already prone to dryness during the winter, due to extreme temperatures and the dry, forced-air heat we blast it with from central heating units, a nightly hot shower can lead to dry, itchy patches and cracked skin from your face down to your feet.

How cool do you have to keep it? If possible, limit your showers to five minutes and keep temps low enough to stop the skin from turning red, lest you create a dry skin problem that requires a doctor’s attention.

How do you switch up your skincare routine during the winter? Let us know in the comments below.

Read Next: How to Save Your Dry, Damaged Hair

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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