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Impact of Winter on Skin: Understanding and Tackling Challenges



Effect of Winter on Skin

As a dermatologist, I’ve observed how the brisk winter air can do more than just lower the thermometer readings—it also poses unique challenges to our skin’s well being. In this article I’ll share with you the myriad ways the winter season influences our skin’s condition. More importantly, I’ll provide tailored advice and effective strategies to help you protect and nurture your skin during these colder months.

Understanding Skin’s Winter Woes

The Science of Skin in Cold Weather

The skin, our body’s largest organ, reacts dynamically to the environment. In winter, low temperatures and reduced humidity levels lead to a diminished skin barrier function. This means the skin loses moisture faster and becomes more vulnerable to external irritants. Additionally, the sebaceous glands produce less oil, which normally helps to lock in moisture and protect the skin. The result is skin that is more prone to dryness, cracking, and irritation.

Increased Sensitivity and Reactivity

Cold weather induces a physiological response where blood vessels constrict to preserve body heat. This process, known as vasoconstriction, reduces blood flow to the skin, depriving it of essential nutrients and oxygen. Consequently, skin becomes more susceptible to damage and heals slower. Moreover, the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines by keratinocytes in response to cold air increases skin sensitivity and can exacerbate inflammatory skin conditions.

Impact of Indoor Heating

While outdoor cold is harsh on the skin, indoor heating can be just as detrimental. Heated air inside homes and workplaces tends to be very dry, which can further dehydrate the skin. This creates a cycle of transitioning between extreme temperatures, which strains the skin’s ability to adapt and maintain its natural balance.

Protective Response to Cold

In reaction to cold, the skin alters its composition and function. The stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the skin, thickens in an attempt to provide better insulation and protection. However, this can lead to a build-up of dead skin cells, making the skin appear dull and contributing to clogged pores.

Pre-existing Skin Conditions Aggravated by Winter

Common Winter-Exacerbated Skin Issues

Certain skin conditions are known to flare up during the colder months. These include:

  • Allergies & Eczemas: Winter’s dry air strips moisture from the skin, making it prone to allergies and eczemas. These conditions are marked by red, itchy, and flaky skin, often aggravated by indoor heating systems.
  • Rosacea: Stark contrast between warm indoor environments and the cold outdoors during winters can trigger rosacea flare-ups. These manifest as redness, swelling, and acne-like symptoms on the face.
  • Atopic Dermatitis: Also known as eczema, atopic dermatitis worsens in winter due to reduced humidity and increased use of central heating. This results in dry, itchy, and inflamed patches of skin.
  • Psoriasis: The lack of sunlight in winter can exacerbate psoriasis, a condition characterized by rapid skin cell buildup, leading to thick, silvery scales and dry, red patches that are itchy and sometimes painful.
  • Lichen Planus: This inflammatory condition, presenting as purplish, itchy, flat bumps on the skin, often worsens in winter. Cold weather can trigger more severe outbreaks and discomfort.
  • Fungal Infections: Fungal infections thrive in winter due to less frequent bathing and poor ventilation in clothing. They manifest as itchy, scaly rashes, often in skin folds.
  • Photo-sensitive Dermatoses: Reduced sunlight in winter can worsen conditions like photo-sensitive dermatoses, where skin reacts abnormally to light. People often seek more sun exposure, inadvertently aggravating their condition.
  • Cheilitis: Common in winter, cheilitis is characterized by cracked, dry, and sore lips. This condition is often caused by the cold and dry outdoor air and exacerbated by frequent lip-licking to relieve dryness.

Direct Skin Issues Resulting from Cold Temperatures

Unique Winter Skin Challenges

Apart from exacerbating pre-existing conditions, winter also brings unique skin challenges:

  • Chilblains: Chilblains are painful, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures. They typically appear on the fingers and toes, causing redness, swelling, and a burning sensation, often aggravated by sudden warming.
  • Cold Urticaria: This unique condition involves an allergic-like reaction to the cold, where exposure leads to red, itchy welts or hives on the skin. The symptoms can range from mild irritation to severe swelling and discomfort.
  • Frostbite: Frostbite is a serious condition where skin and underlying tissues freeze, primarily affecting extremities like fingers, toes, ears, and nose. Early symptoms include cold skin and a prickling feeling, followed by numbness.
  • Acrocyanosis: Acrocyanosis is characterized by a painless discoloration of the extremities, usually the hands and feet, which turn blue or purple in response to cold. It is caused by a decrease in blood supply to these areas.
  • Other Issues: Other skin issues that can arise in cold temperatures include:
    • Dry, Itchy Skin: General skin dryness and itchiness are common in cold weather due to decreased humidity and indoor heating.
    • Windburn: Similar to sunburn, windburn causes red, sore, and chapped skin due to cold, windy conditions.
    • Raynaud’s Phenomenon: Where fingers or toes turn white or blue in response to cold temperatures or stress together with reduced blood circulation. It can feel tingly, numb, or even a bit painful when this happens.

Protecting Your Skin in Winter

Essential Winter Skin Care Tips

As a skin doctor, I’ve seen many of my patients find it tricky to take care of their skin in winter. But guess what? Keeping your skin happy during the cold months doesn’t have to be a big deal or super complicated! Let me share with you some key steps that are not only easy to follow but also kind and gentle to your skin. Let’s dive into these essential winter skin care tips:

  1. Regular Moisturizing: In winter, your skin needs more love. Find a moisturizer that’s right for your skin type – whether it’s oily, dry, or a combination. Apply it every morning and night, and don’t forget to reapply if your skin feels dry during the day. Think of it like wrapping your skin in a cozy blanket!
  2. Stay Hydrated: Drinking water is like giving your skin a refreshing drink. Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day. This helps keep your skin hydrated from the inside out, making it look healthy and happy.
  3. Gentle Skin Care Products: Your skin can be a bit more sensitive in the cold. Use products that are kind to your skin – those without harsh chemicals or strong fragrances. Look for labels that say “gentle” or “for sensitive skin.”
  4. Humidify Your Environment: Indoor heating can make the air in your home dry, and that can dry out your skin too. Using a humidifier adds moisture back into the air, which helps keep your skin feeling comfortable.
  5. Protect Your Skin from the Cold: When you go outside, bundle up in warm clothes, and don’t forget to apply sunscreen. Yes, even in winter, the sun can still affect your skin! Use a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and apply it to all exposed areas.

Remember, taking care of your skin in winter doesn’t have to be complicated. These steps are simple but can make a big difference in how your skin feels and looks during these chilly months. Stay warm and take care of your skin!

Conclusion: Embracing Winter with Healthy Skin

Winter can be tough on your skin, but with the right care, you can maintain its health and vitality. Understanding the science behind winter’s impact on skin and taking proactive steps to protect it can make a significant difference. Remember, every skin type is unique, so tailor your skin care routine to your specific needs and enjoy the beauty of winter without the worry of skin woes. When in doubt, reach out to your dermatologist for expert advice.


  1. Diller, K.R., Khoshnevis, S., Brothers, M. (2016). Effects of Cold Temperature on the Skin. In: Abramovits, W., Graham, G., Har-Shai, Y., Strumia, R. (eds) Dermatological Cryosurgery and Cryotherapy. Springer, London.
  2. Park EH, Jo DJ, Jeon HW, Na SJ. Effects of winter indoor environment on the skin: Unveiling skin condition changes in Korea. Skin Res Technol. 2023 Jun;29(6):e13397. doi: 10.1111/srt.13397. PMID: 37357654; PMCID: PMC10264749.
  3. Chan, Jonathan & MacNeill, Stephanie & Stuart, Beth & Lo, Eunice & Roberts, Amanda & Mitchell, Dann & Ridd, Matthew. (2023). Do temperature changes cause eczema flares? An English cohort study. Clinical and experimental dermatology. 48. 10.1093/ced/llad147.
  4. Jessica W. Hui-Beckman, Elena Goleva, Donald Y.M. Leung, Byung Eui Kim, The impact of temperature on the skin barrier and atopic dermatitis, Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Volume 131, Issue 6, 2023, Pages 713-719, ISSN 1081-1206

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