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7 soothers for dry, itchy winter skin

Learn everything you need to keep your skin healthy all season long.

Hallie Levine By Hallie Levine

Winter is tough on your skin, whether you’re out braving the cold or staying warm indoors. The combination of frigid outdoor weather and heated, dry indoor air can leave skin parched and itchy, says Debra Jaliman, M.D. She’s an assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. And she’s the author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.

“The dry air sucks the moisture out of your skin. And in the cold weather, your skin attempts to conserve heat by constricting blood vessels, which dries out your skin’s outer layers,” Dr. Jaliman explains. The result? Dry, flaky skin that can crack and bleed — and even let in bacteria that can lead to infection.

While you can’t flash forward to warmer spring days, there is plenty you can do to keep your skin soft and supple through even the coldest winters. Here’s what you need to know.


What causes dry winter skin

Understanding why skin suffers in winter can help you steer clear of the causes. And it can help you pinpoint solutions for things you can’t avoid. Top culprits include:

  • Weather: Humidity levels are naturally lower in the winter. That means there is less moisture in the air — and on your skin, says Dr. Jaliman. Cranking up the heat indoors also dries out the air, making your skin drier as well.
  • Hot showers: To try to warm up, you may spend more time than usual in a hot shower. And water is hydrating to skin, right? Sadly, not in this case. “Hot showers dry out the skin by pulling moisture out of it,” explains Dr. Jaliman. “And the hot water reduces the natural oils of the skin.” This can leave your skin itchy and red.

    The hot water can even damage the top layer of your skin that holds in moisture. That can cause inflammation and flare-ups of skin conditions like eczema.

  • Getting older: “As we age, we have fewer natural skin oils,” says Dr. Jaliman. This means your skin dries out more easily, which also makes fine lines and wrinkles more noticeable.
  • Having certain chronic conditions: Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis are at the top of the list. “People with these conditions already have skin that is easily irritated or inflamed,” says Dr. Jaliman.

    When winter air and harsh winds dry out the skin, it can cause eczema or psoriasis to flare. This is also true if you have diabetes. That’s because you’re more likely to have dry skin due to high blood glucose levels and poor circulation.

7 tips to heal and soothe winter skin

Use gentle cleansers

Cleansers should put moisture into your skin, not wash it away. Avoid products that contain alcohol, which is drying. Steering clear of fragrances is also smart, says Dr. Jaliman. They are a top cause of contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction that creates a rash, redness and swelling. Basically, if you can smell it, there’s a fragrance in the product.

Instead, opt for products that say “gentle” and “moisturizing” on the label. If you have a skin condition like eczema, you likely need extra hydration. Washes that contain moisturizing ingredients like petroleum, shea butter and silicones are for you.


Take short showers

Keep your shower to 10 minutes or less and lower the water temperature. Dr. Jaliman recommends using lukewarm or even cool water if you don’t mind it.

When you’ve just come out of the shower and your skin is still wet, take advantage: Pat your skin with a towel — don’t rub it — to retain some of that moisture. Then apply a lotion or cream right away after you’ve finished to lock the moisture in.

“Apply moisturizers at least 20 minutes before going outdoors to allow maximum penetration into the skin,” says James Beckman, M.D. He’s an adjunct associate clinical professor in the dermatology department at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science College of Medicine.


Use the right moisturizers

Ointments and creams are more effective than lotions, says Dr. Jaliman. Look for those that you squeeze from a tube or scoop from a tub. They tend to be thicker and hold more moisture. One super hydrating ingredient: hyaluronic acid. It absorbs 1,000 times its weight in water. Other moisturizing ingredients to look for on ingredient labels include:

  • Dimethicone
  • Glycerin
  • Jojoba oil
  • Lactic acid
  • Lanolin
  • Mineral oil
  • Petrolatum
  • Shea butter

For your face, choose a moisturizer that’s noncomedogenic. That means it will moisturize your skin without clogging your pores, which can cause acne.


Give your hands and feet extra TLC

Hands and feet are more likely to become dry, cracked and tender than other parts of your body. For one thing, the palms of your hands and soles of your feet have no sebaceous glands. These glands let out natural oils that lubricate skin. And your hands may be especially prone to dryness thanks to all the handwashing you’re doing to fend off colds, the flu and COVID-19.

Thick ointments that contain ingredients like glycerin are ideal for hands and feet. “Glycerin is a humectant. It works to moisturize the skin by drawing water from the air into the skin’s outer layer,” Dr. Jaliman explains. “It also serves as a protective layer that helps prevent moisture loss.”

For extra hand protection, wear rubber gloves when you’re doing something that requires getting your hands wet (like washing dishes). Where them when you’re cleaning with harsh household chemicals, too. And as with your post-shower routine, dry your hands after washing them but leave them slightly damp. Then smooth on your hand cream or ointment.


Reset your thermometer

It should be set between 68 and 72 degrees during the winter, says Dr. Jaliman. If you have a humidifier, plug it in to add moisture to the air.


Prep for the outdoors

The days may be shorter and the skies grayer this time of year. But protecting exposed skin from the sun is still key during winter. “The sun is actually even closer to the earth in the winter months. And clouds do little to filter out its rays,” says Dr. Beckman.

Swap out your usual sunscreen sprays for moisturizers with SPF. Most experts recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Remember to put it on 15 to 20 minutes before heading outside. And don’t forget your lips: A thick ointment that has petroleum can help prevent chapping, says Dr. Jaliman.


Drink up

We tend to sweat less and feel less thirsty in winter, so staying hydrated isn’t top of mind. But it’s still important to drink at least eight cups of water a day. This keeps your body well hydrated, which in turn helps plump up your skin, says Dr. Jaliman.



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