How you can prevent winter skin problems; and when it’s time to see a doctor
Cold, windy days and nights inside with central heating can dry out your skin and cause mild skin ailments to flare up. North Texas has had a mild winter so far, but it’s time to prepare for some blustery weeks ahead.
Daniel Witheiler, MD, dermatologist on the medical staff at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, has advice to stop winter skin problems before they start.
Problem No. 1: My skin is SO dry and itchy!
Winter’s weather has some specific factors that cause our skin to go into stress-mode.
“With winter comes colder, dryer weather,” Dr. Witheiler says. “The lower humidity outdoors is often compounded by heated air indoors, which decreases the moisture content of the air further. With less water in the air, our skin in turn loses water and can become much dryer, causing many skin conditions you see only during the winter.”
For some people, skin just gets dry and irritated from temperature shifts, but the weather’s effects can be even worse if you already have severe dry skin issues or eczema, a chronic condition that involves inflammation of the skin. Though eczema affects a smaller group of people than those with general winter skin irritation, it often requires a prescription from a physician to treat.
Even though the cold air you experience might not be sub-zero, your skin is a sensitive organ that needs constant care. First things first, be careful how you wash your hands and bathe.
“Avoid hot water and any soap on skin that’s prone to dryness in the arms, legs, and neck,” Dr. Witheiler says. Sometimes the “squeaky clean” feeling that we love is actually doing more harm than good, since both hot water and cleansers decrease the natural oil in your skin that protects you during the winter. “Avoid using scrubs, loofas, or washcloths in the shower as these worsen the problem,” Dr. Witheiler adds. He suggests using a gentle cleanser and soap with a moisturizer.
Limiting your bathing and showering to once a day and then for no more than 5 to 10 minutes with warm — not hot — water is important, too. Soon afterward, pat the skin dry and apply a basic lotion or cream to help maintain moisturized skin. This will help to lock in moisture and create a better barrier to cold winds and dry air.
Most important, though, is maintaining this routine even when symptoms aren’t occurring.
“It is important to do these things even when your skin isn’t dry in order to effectively prevent dryness from occurring in the first place,” Witheiler says.
When you do brave the weather, clothing that covers your arms, legs, and neck can also be a protective barrier for your skin.
Problem No. 2: Wait, my lips are dry too!
Our lips also get a lot of the brunt of winter air. It’s impossible to keep them from gusty winds and freezing temps, so a heavy, petroleum-based lip balm is going to be a lip-lifesaver.
Problem No. 3: How did I get sunburnt in winter?
Just because you’re not sporting a swimsuit in a 100-plus-degree Texas summer doesn’t mean the sun can’t do a number on your skin. In the winter, the sun offers less powerful light, but it is UV light just the same.
“Winter clothing — like long sleeves and pants — may mitigate damage to most of our skin, but our faces and lips are still exposed,” Dr. Witheiler says.
He says one of the biggest mistakes people make is foregoing their sunscreen each day. Even 20 minutes in the sun can lead to sunburn that could have easily been prevented. Look for a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 20. Remember to apply a facial sunscreen daily as well.
Problem No. 4: I’m breaking out, but I’m not sweating.
“Some other skin conditions, like psoriasis and acne, flare for certain individuals in the winter due to this changing environment,” Dr. Witheiler says.
When your skin is stripped of its natural protective moisture barrier in the wintertime, it’s easier for dirt and germs to make their way into the skin, often leading to acne flare-ups.
Using a gentler cleanser and a heavier moisturizer for these cold months might be the way to go.
Problem No. 5: Nothing is working for my skin
Sometimes, it takes more that bundling up, shortening showers, and using over-the-counter lotions to survive winter’s skin struggles.
“When each of these common-sense strategies fails to control dryness, dermatologists can prescribe more powerful moisturizers or anti-inflammatory creams to apply to the affected areas,” Dr. Witheiler says.
If you can’t seem to find any at-home answer to your winter skin problems, contacting your dermatologist is a smart move. He or she will be able to assess your skin’s real issues and perhaps offer a prescribed treatment or treatments.