A dermatologist from the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Dermatology offers expert advice about skin care when the weather turns cold.

The winter weather flares skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Even in patients with “normal” skin, dryness and itching can accompany the change in seasons. What is happening, and what does it mean for winter skin care?

Water – Key to Healthy Skin

Water is essential for healthy skin. Without water, the skin can’t function. Our body has designed a system to preserve water – a wall called the skin barrier. This wall is comprised of skin cells made of proteins surrounded by lipids. This wall keeps water in and bacteria and other irritants out.

Especially in the winter, it is crucial to choose skin products that maintain the skin barrier rather than corrode the skin wall.

Cold Weather – Stress on the Skin

There is less moisture in cold air which impacts the hydration of our skin. Furthermore, shifting from a humid environment to a dry environment stresses our skin. Winter travel from humid to dry locations can break down skin barrier. All of this means that during the change in seasons and during winter, we will be more likely to develop dry, red, irritated, itchy skin. A damaged skin barrier is less able to fight infection.

Maintain Your Skin

Especially in the winter, it is crucial to choose skin products that maintain the skin barrier rather than corrode the skin wall. Cleansing is an important part of skin care that removes dirt and bacteria. However, a secondary effect of cleansing is a reduction of the lipids of the skin. Think about your dish soap – soap surrounds oils to clean dirty plates. Bath soaps can have the same effect on our skin lipids – cleansing removes lipids in the skin.

In the winter, choose products that are gentle. Moisturizing cleansers or oil based cleansers, for example, deposit lipids as they clean. Non foaming cleansing lotions, milks or oils are less irritating than foaming cleansers.

In general, choose creams and ointments in the winter and lotions in the summer.

Moisturizers for Winter Skin Care

Moisturizers are a critical part of winter care as well. Moisturizers are especially important if you are taking common medications such as cholesterol lowering agents, which can lower the lipids in the skin. Moisturizers simulate the lipids in our skin and prevent water loss.

The choice of moisturizer depends on the need. Ointments such as petrolatum are more effective than creams which are more effective than lotions. In general, choose creams and ointments in the winter and lotions in the summer.

Living in low temperatures and low humidity requires us to give extra attention to our skin. Start making the right choices early in the cold season to prevent damage to the skin.

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Molly Wanner, MD, MBA
Molly Wanner, MD, MBA, is a board-certified dermatologist at the Mass General Department of Dermatology.  Dr. Wanner is an expert in cosmetic dermatology and laser surgery. She uses the latest tools and techniques in facial rejuvenation and body contouring to achieve results that are natural.