How to Soothe Dry, Irritated Skin All Winter Long
Is your face red, dry, or itchy? The key to calming the irritation lies in figuring out what, exactly, caused your skin to freak out. Here are a few clues, plus winter moisturizing routines for every skin type.
When temperatures drop, the odds skyrocket that your skin will feel tight, become flaky and look red, thanks to culprits such as the season's cool air, dry wind and low humidity (both indoors and outdoors), as well as bad skin habits, such as overly hot showers and inadequate moisturizing. The resulting dryness is bad news for your face. "Water helps preserve the hydration of the outer layers of the skin, creating an effective barrier that protects the body from bacteria and irritants," says Kenneth Beer, M.D., director of the Palm Beach Esthetic Center, in Florida. Here, a winter skin-care plan that will keep your skin healthy and better protected.
What Causes Dry Winter Skin?
Your Exfoliating Habits
Exfoliation is generally a good thing because it removes dead skin cells that make skin look dull. But if you do it too often, are too abrasive, or combine multiple exfoliators, “You risk stripping away the natural oils and healthy bacteria that keep your skin balanced. And that can lead to irritation,” says Whitney Bowe, M.D., dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin. If your skin is inflamed, quit exfoliating until it returns to normal. Then rethink how you exfoliate. Pick one method—a scrub with soft or rounded particles, a washcloth, or a cleansing tool—but don’t use them together, Bowe says. (Try St. Ives Gentle Smoothing Oatmeal Scrub & Mask, $4.49.) Finally, limit exfoliation to twice a week, max. “Most people can’t tolerate more than that,” Bowe says.
Taking a long, hot shower on a cold day is tempting, but it's actually one of the quickest ways to dry out your skin. "Hot water leeches your skin's oils from the body," says Dr. Beer. Take a smarter shower by keeping the temperature below 90 degrees. (If you don't have a temperature gauge, judge by how quickly your mirror steams up. If it's fully fogged in 60 seconds or less, the water's too hot, says Dr. Bank.) Another helpful tip: limit showers to five minutes. Then take advantage of skin's post-shower dampness by slathering moisturizer all over to seal in the H2O.
Sensitive skin might be a clue that you have a skin condition that has not been diagnosed. For example, the tendency to blush or flush, along with persistent redness on your cheeks, forehead, and chin, are common signs of rosacea. Eczema also causes irritation and dry, flaky skin. Both conditions are best treated under a dermatologist’s care. However, pink, dry skin that isn’t that itchy may just be a reaction to certain ingredients or a sign that your skin care routine is too aggressive. In that case, dial back and use products labeled fragrance-free or designed for baby skin or eczema, which are less likely to upset skin, Bowe says. (Try Aveeno Eczema Therapy Moisturizing Cream, $7.99.)
The Drying Environment
Cold air equals dry air. “If the air is dry, it sucks the moisture out of the skin and compromises the skin barrier,” says Bostonbased dermatologist Emmy Graber, M.D., referring to the layer of skin that defends against irritants and holds in moisture. Weakening this layer leaves skin vulnerable to irritation. Indoor heating can have a similarly drying effect, creating a lose-lose situation for skin in the winter. To keep your skin barrier strong and functioning properly, use a cream with ingredients that help trap and retain moisture like ceramides, hyaluronic acid, or both. (Try CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion, $10.49.)
Winter Moisturizing Routines for Every Skin Type
If Your Skin is Oily...
Although you get some protection from sebum (oil produced by the sebaceous glands that also helps your skin retain moisture), it's not always enough. "The surface can look greasy and shiny even while the underlying layers are not properly hydrated," notes Jody Alpert Levine, M.D., owner and cofounder of Plastic Surgery & Dermatology of NYC, in New York City. Clues that your oily skin is crying for moisture include tightness, flaky patches and sensitivity to products that you can normally tolerate in warmer months.
Cleanse: Cleansers with exfoliating and antibacterial properties, such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, are great for keeping the skin clear, but in winter switch to products with lower percentages of these active ingredients or more-moisturizing versions.
Moisturize: A lightweight, oil-free moisturizer will keep water in the upper layers of your skin without clogging your pores. (Remember, oil doesn't equal hydration, but water does.) Also keep in mind that even if you may not need a moisturizer, you still need to apply a sunscreen—yes, even in winter.
Treat: If you regularly use an acne treatment product to keep oil and breakouts in check, "you may need to cut back," notes dermatologist David Bank, M.D., director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery, in Mount Kisco, New York. Try replacing benzoyl peroxide with salicylic acid, which has similar antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties but is less drying.
Extra: A weekly pore-cleaning mask is still ideal for ridding the skin of excess oil, but switch to one that also contains moisturizing ingredients.
If Your Skin is Combination...
When your skin has a split personality, you get two different skin reactions in winter. For instance, your temples and cheeks, which are already on the normal to dry side, can become even more dehydrated, while the oily T-zone can get flaky, especially around the nose. Also, it's not uncommon for combination skin to become less tolerant of the acne treatments that you're so reliant on, making the goal of a balanced complexion—which Dr. Levine defines as smooth with no shiny or overly dry areas—quite a skin challenge.
Cleanse: Using a gentle pH-balanced cleanser will preserve your skin's protective layer of sweat and sebum. Gentle exfoliation is also important to keep T-zone pores clean and remove dry patches and flakes.
Moisturize: "Don't put moisturizer where you don't need it," advises Dr. Bank. Instead, use a richer product on the drier areas and a lightweight lotion along the T-zone. While this extra step might take a bit more time, it will keep combination skin clear and happy.
Treat: At night, apply an oil-free moisturizer all over your face, avoiding the T-zone. Follow up with an acne treatment, such as one containing 2 percent salicylic acid, over your breakout-prone areas.
Extra: If you love using toner to tighten up the pores in your T-zone, make sure you use an alcohol-free formula with moisturizing ingredients that won't dry out your skin.
If Your Skin is Dry...
When you already have dry skin, you fight a year-round battle against tightness, dullness, roughness and even more pronounced wrinkles. These symptoms become more prevalent and harder to treat during the colder months. And don't be surprised to suddenly experience these conditions if you've never had dry skin before. As you get older, oil production begins to decline and your skin barrier becomes weaker and progressively drier. "Also, hormones play a role in keeping oil production up, so the loss of estrogen during menopause is another whammy," notes Dr. Bank.
Cleanse: "The key is finding the right wash," says Dr. Levine. Bar soap will strip oils from your skin, so use a hydrating formula or a cream cleanser that leaves behind a protective film.
Moisturize: Apply moisturizer while your skin is still damp to help lock in hydration, or layer it with a serum with absorbing humectants to draw water into the skin. Sun-damaged skin is also drier than healthier skin, according to Dr. Bank, so always follow with sunscreen. In the evening apply a night cream or dampen skin, then apply Vaseline to seal in the moisture. "It won't feel greasy or clog your pores," Dr. Levine promises.
Treat: Dry skin benefits from gentle exfoliation, whether it's a scrub or a light acid, because it optimizes your skin's barrier function. To start, limit any kind of exfoliation to once or twice a week.
Extra: Treat your skin to a weekly mask to add moisture back.
If Your Skin is Sensitive...
Sensitive skin, which tends to get red and irritated from different triggers such as temperature changes, certain skin-care ingredients and spicy foods, only worsens in the winter. Whether your sensitivity is just a temporary situation from skin-care products or a symptom of a more complicated condition like rosacea—a disease that affects 14 million Americans and can include redness, flushing, broken blood vessels and acne—dryness will only exacerbate the stinging, itching and inflammation. "You see more sensitive skin cases in the winter because the barrier isn't working as well," says Dr. Bank.
Cleanse: Look for mild cleansers that are soap- and fragrance-free or contain calming ingredients such as aloe or chamomile. And wash skin very gently in lukewarm water just once a day.
Moisturize: Sensitive skin is especially vulnerable to sun damage, so protect it with a sunscreen that features zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as its main ingredients. Avoid lotions or gels, which are formulated with alcohol and will irritate this skin type, advises Dr. Levine.
Treat: If you experience a flare-up or redness brought on by a trigger such as cold wind, apply a hydrocortisone lotion for quick relief from itching and irritation. Because it is so potent, make sure not to use it every day.
Extra: Since less is definitely more when it comes to sensitive skin, skip any exfoliation. "This skin needs to be babied," notes Dr. Bank.
Winter Eye & Lip Care
If you've ever felt as if your lips and the area around your eyes are suddenly drier than the Mojave Desert, you know firsthand how easily these thin-skinned areas lose water. Fine lines that appear seemingly overnight are your first hint that the skin is dry, while the lips can become painfully chapped. Luckily, a little eye moisturizer or lip balm plumps up this skin and will have your eyes and lips feeling comfortable once again.
Try: Skinfood Royal Honey Moisturizing Essential Eye Cream, $15.99, or Softlips Vanilla Lip Conditioner, $2.99, with SPF 20, vitamin E, and petrolatum.