Dry Skin in Winter: Here's How To Help Your Skin To Survive

Woman rinsing face in a stream of water

So, you’ve made it through the sweltering heat of the summer, enjoyed the falling leaves and cozy sweater weather of the fall, but all of the sudden winter shows up and your skin is just not having it. What gives?!

If you’re already prone to dry skin, winter can wreak some serious havoc on your skin. Why? In cold weather, the water in your skin evaporates faster, as there’s less humidity in the air. We all know that your skin needs moisture to be at its best. Cold air isn’t able to retain very much moisture, unlike hot air.

In fact, the colder the temperature, the less moisture there will be in the air. Combine this with icy winter winds and you have one dehydrated epidermis! If you live somewhere windy, you’ll be well aware that the wind takes even more moisture away from your body. This can contribute to the “chapped” look your skin may adopt.

This dry weather combined with the increased use of heating in your home, hair dryers, and piping hot baths and showers contributes to dry skin that is sometimes itchy or painful. But don’t worry: here’s what you can do about it.

Moisturize Like Your Life Depended On It

blue tin of Nivea Cream

A good moisturizer contains ingredients that will hydrate your skin as well as fight to keep that hydration in

If only we could inject moisture back into those cells by just drinking water or applying a magical cream. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Simply slapping on some moisturizer won’t be a miracle solution, sadly. To really get an effective winter skin routine, let’s dive into the science behind keeping your skin moisturized.

The Magical Inner Workings of Moisturizer: How Does It Really Work?

To heal your chapped, dry skin, you’ll need something that draws moisture to your skin first — this is called a humectant. Some ingredients that are humectants include hyaluronic acid, urea, sodium lactate, or glycerin. These ingredients are typically found in moisturizing lotions, creams, oils, or serums.

When we drink water, our skin may absorb some of this moisture, but not at the surface level. A humectant draws this water from the lower layers of our skin to the surface. Sound good? There’s just one more thing we’re missing — we’ve got to make sure this moisture stays put!

That’s where what’s called an occlusive agent comes in. This will lock in the moisture and keep the cold air and wind from sucking it back out. This functions just like a protective barrier — think of it like a windbreaker for your skin. You probably have heard of some common occlusive agents before, such as petrolatum (vaseline), waxes (such as beeswax), oils (such as avocado and sweet almond oils), cocoa butter, and silicones.

bowl of coconut oil next to a candle and washcloth

Oils can be a great and inexpensive way to hydrate your skin (photo: hallosunny.blogspot.com.es)

Moisturizing products will often contain emollients as well – these are ingredients help soothe and soften your skin, such as oils and butters. These ingredients often have occlusive properties, such as grapeseed oil, jojoba oil, shea and mango butter, and petrolatum. These are great ingredients to look for if your skin feels rough and scaly. Good moisturizers have a combination of both humectants and emollients.

Pro tip: You may have used vaseline for chapped lips or dry skin before. Vaseline is 100% petroleum jelly or petrolatum. You can keep using vaseline, but make sure to put a moisturizer underneath or you won’t be doing your skin many favors.

How to Make Sure Your Moisturizing Routine Is Top Notch

Woman rinsing face in a stream of water

A lot of people mistakenly believe that their moisturizing routine doesn’t have to change from season to season

As always, it’s better to prevent your skin from becoming too dry rather than wait until it’s cracked and bleeding. As soon as the temperature starts to drop, start your winter moisturizing routine. In the summer or fall, you may have used a lightweight moisturizing lotion. For winter, you’ll need to make sure you’re getting maximum moisture – that means ditching those lightweight lotions.

Instead, opt for a fragrance-free, heavy-duty moisturizer to protect your skin. You may want to invest in two products: a lighter moisturizer for daytime and a thicker moisturizer to leave on overnight.

To keep your skin nice and hydrated, moisturize as soon as you get out of the shower and re-apply at least two or three times per day. Don’t forget those knees and elbows, either: they’ll need some love too!

If you’ve got naturally oily skin, you don’t need to go crazy with the moisturizer. Follow our winter advice on only your driest parts, and use your regular routine everywhere else.

small white tub of Shiseido moisturizer

You’ll want to invest in two different moisturizers for day and nighttime use

At night is when you’ll want to bring out the big guns. Take advantage of dream time to get uninterrupted hours of moisture. After your moisturizing cream or serum sinks in, apply an occlusive agent, such as a pea-sized amount of vaseline or Aquaphor.

If you have cracked hands or feet, you can also include them in your nighttime skin routine. Cover your hands and feet with moisturizing product followed by an occlusive product and cover with gloves and socks. You should wake up with soft, smooth hands and feet in the morning.

If your skin is flaking and hurting, you may have to bring out the big guns. At this stage, it’s probably too sensitive for any DIY treatments, and regular moisturizer won’t be enough. You may have to purchase a 0.5 or 1% hydrocortisone cream from your local pharmacy.

However, as hydrocortisone is a steroid, it is not fit for regular use. You should only use this in the areas that are the most painful, and you should never use this near your eyes. If your skin is still dry and painful after a few days of using it, see a doctor immediately.

Pro tip: If you wear makeup, layer a lighter moisturizer under or over your foundation. You can even mix the two together to create tinted moisturizer.

Dry Lips: How To Bring Chapped and Cracked Lips Back to Life

6 different types of chapstick on a white counter

There are more ways of caring for your lips than just using chapstick

Have you ever applied chapstick only to find that your lips feel worse afterwards? This may be because you aren’t using the right ingredients.

Almost everyone has had issues with chapped lips during the winter — this is because the skin on your lips is really thin and can be especially damaged by cold weather. Since your lips do not produce moisture by themselves, you’ll have to rely on an external product.

The main technique you’ll want to employ is to use a humectant/emollient (something that moisturizes) under an occlusive (something that locks it in). An example of this is applying jojoba oil, letting it sink in for a minute, then applying vaseline on top.

Jojoba oil isn’t the only way to add moisture. Some common remedies for dry lips include olive oil, coconut oil, pawpaw ointment, your thickest facial moisturizer, lip butters (try and choose a product with more oils rather than waxes) even raw honey if you’re in a pinch.

Keep those products there with a protective barrier such as vaseline or Aquaphor, a treatment for dry or injured skin available over the counter at your local pharmacy. The difference is that vaseline is 100% petroleum jelly, and Aquaphor contains other ingredients in addition to petroleum jelly.

you can get it in different flavors (photo: londonbeautyqueen.com)

Vaseline doesn’t have to be boring

At night, you should apply both a product from the moisturizing list and a product from the occlusive list, but during the day feel free to alternate between the two as you reapply after eating and drinking. Consider saving your thickest, greasiest moisturizer for nighttime use.

If your lips are a little chapped — NOT dry or cracking— use brown sugar and coconut oil to exfoliate very, very lightly before you apply your moisturizer. If you have lips that are at all bleeding or cracking, skip the exfoliation step. At this point you’ll be doing it more harm than good.

Don’t expect a miracle treatment overnight, however — while you may feel some immediate relief if your lips are truly cracked and dry, your skin will take a while to heal it. This could take as much as three days to one week.

While your body is healing, keep drinking that water! Like the rest of your body, your lips need hydration from inside your body as well. Hot tea might feel good during the colder months, and is a great way to up your water intake.

Hands or Lips Still Cracked and Bleeding? Raid the Baby Aisle

Picture of Lanolin HPA Cream and box

Mothers won’t be surprised to learn that creams used for breastfeeding work wonders on chapped or bleeding lips or hands (photo: lansinoh.com)

Often the skin most affected by the cold weather is on our hands and our lips. They can become so dry to the point where they start bleeding and hurting — no fun! If your hands or lips are truly in a sorry state and the likes of coconut oil are just not cutting it, take a page out of the baby book.

You may have never thought to look in the baby aisle, but it turns out there’s a hidden treasure there for sufferers of dry skin. Lanolin topical cream, also known as ‘nipple cream,’ is inexpensive, effective, and available at any drugstore or pharmacy. If not even the thickest application of coconut oil is working for you, this might be worth a try.

To apply, use sparingly. A little goes a long way, so start with a tiny amount and increase if necessary. Use on your cracked skin, wherever that may be— you can even layer it underneath your favorite lipstick. If you’ve been burned by some rough winter winds, try spreading a small amount on the apples of your cheeks.

Watch out of you have a wool allergy, though — this cream uses lanolin, a natural wax that coats sheep (and other wooly animals)’s fur to keep it waterproof. If you’re not sure, always do a patch test just to be safe.

Afraid of the baby aisle? Don’t want quizzical looks from strangers? Not to worry; some cosmetics companies have started making lanolin-based lip products. If you don’t like the packaging, or you don’t want everyone to think you are breastfeeding, you could always transfer the product into a clear jar. Bonus points if it’s a travel-sized jar so you can take it with you wherever you go!

If you are still experiencing chapped lips, consider switching toothpastes, as you may be reacting negatively, or asking your doctor about potential allergies. Constant chapped lips could also be a sign of lack of vitamin B or blood sugar problems.

Turn the Heat Down and the Moisture Up

white modern humidifier on a wooden table emitting steam

A humidifier can make a huge difference in winter (photo: yourbestdigs.com)

Unfortunately, as nice as it may feel to come home to a warm and toasty house or apartment, the heating may be the main culprit of your skin woes. We’re not going to ask you to turn the heat off because that’s just silly. But consider turning the heat down at night (and putting an extra blanket on instead) to save your skin from some of the heat-related distress.

Why’s this? We already learned that cold air has low moisture. When you heat up that same cold air, it still doesn’t have very much moisture— but now it has the capacity for more. What little moisture you have on your body tends to get evaporated by the now-hot air. No fair!

One way to combat this is to pump some moisture into the air — this is the other crucial part of the moisturizing equation. If you’re going to be using heating, which, let’s face it, is absolutely necessary in colder climates, a great way to prevent dry and cracked skin is to invest in a humidifier.

In case you’re not familiar with one, a humidifier is a small device that uses water vapor to fill the air with moisture. This very likely will make your skin less dry, your throat less sore, your nose less runny, your lips less chapped, and it even might help with winter coughs. You should absolutely run your humidifier in your bedroom at night.

You can buy both cold air humidifiers and warm air humidifiers. There’s not much difference in how they work — cold mist humidifiers are just as effective as warm mist humidifiers. The advantage of warm-mist humidifiers is that they may have a smaller chance of dispersing mold or bacteria into the air if you. To be safe, you should empty, clean, and dry the water of your humidifier daily. There’s nothing ickier than a moldy humidifier. Shudder.

If you have pets or small children, a cold mist humidifier is advantageous, as they are safer. Because the water is not boiling, your children or pets will not get burned if they accidentally knock over the water taken. If you’re extra concerned about bacteria, you can always fill your humidifier with distilled or bottled water if you are extra worried about bacteria.

Your humidifier’s moisture level should be relevant to the outside temperature, so check online with your local weather guide. In general, the air in your home should have 25 to 40 percent humidity in the winter. This will prevent your windows from accumulating condensation and mold from growing.

Let’s sum it up: 4 essential skincare tips in winter

While discussing about skincare tips, we’ve mentioned moisturizing a couple of times. This is because the lack of moisture in the air is the primary reason that makes our skin suffer in winter. To sum it up, these are the core things that will help to keep your skin healthy:

  • Moisturize your skin frequently. As the temperature goes down, make moisturizing a winter routine.
  • Use moisturizer AND vaseline for your lips. Use olive, jojoba or other oil (to moisturize) and then apply vaseline on top (to lock it up).
  • Use Lanolin if nothing else helps. This natural wax is sometimes called ‘nipple cream’ and can be an effective solution for bleeding hands or lips.
  • Ensure good indoor climate. Again, keeping temperature a bit lower and moisturizing room air could prevent all dry skin problems in the first place. Don’t forget that.