Arctic Blast: Itchy, Dry Winter Skin

My skin is dry. I know, I know, I’m a dermatologist, but it’s not my fault — I went home for the holidays.

Last week when I deplaned after a cross-country flight, I put on a blazer while pulling my roll-away suitcase, (struggling unsuccessfully to maintain a Cloony-like grace). I noticed snow on the jetway — it was clearly winter in New England. By the time I found the car in the parking lot, icy air was stinging my face, making my nose run, and numbing my gloveless hands. Snow piles glowed orange under the parking lot lights and thousands of stars twinkled in the crisp night sky. I could already feel my lips cracking. I was not prepared for this kind of cold. Neither was my skin.

Cold air cannot hold water. Air is uncomfortably dry when the mercury drops to single digits. Dryness is “the something there is that doesn’t love skin” as Robert Frost would say. Dry air dehydrates skin, causing smooth layers of cells to fall apart like a dilapidated wall. Having been breached, disrupted skin allows microbes and irritants to penetrate causing inflammation and itching.

Skin is a remarkable biotechnology: bricks of cells are held together with proteins and carbohydrates, sealed with just the right mix of water and cholesterol. Skin is living and adapts to its surroundings: when it’s hot and moist, it makes adjustments to keep you cool and dry. When it’s dry and cold, it adjusts to keep you warm and moist. Some changes, like constricting blood vessels, happens in minutes. Other changes, like increasing oil production to compensate for dry air, takes days.

When the humidity is low, any moisture on exposed skin quickly evaporates. Whipping winds worsen the process, leading to dry chapped skin. Sitting by the fire or cranking the car heat exposes your skin to hot, dry air; although it thaws your fingers, it exacerbates your already parched skin.

Your skin will not simply surrender; it will adapt to its new cold, low humidity environment, but this will take days.

If you have eczema or psoriasis or if you take medications like cholesterol pills (which can hamper the production of cholesterol for your skin), then it can be difficult for your skin to make a recovery. People with eczema or sensitive skin often struggle with itching and irritation throughout winter.

Here are a few tips to help your skin this winter:

1. Liberally apply a moisturizer, preferably one with a sealant like dimethicone to help seal in moisture. This adds a layer of protection and minimizes evaporation. Apply moisturizers throughout the day to your hands and face and twice a day to your body.

2. Omega-3 oils are healthy for your skin from the inside and the outside. Apply flaxseed oil to your skin after bathing and eat plenty of fish and nuts high in omega-3 fatty acids during winter.

3. Vacation in Maui where “the air is so dewy sweet with moisture that you don’t even have to lick the stamps.”

14 thoughts on “Arctic Blast: Itchy, Dry Winter Skin

  1. I’m in the midst of an acne treatment and the Canadian winter doesn’t seem to make it any better any tips??? Its worse on my forehead and temples and the ones healing on my cheek which just healed feel like they’re starting to come back altho the acne cream has left it scaly :(

  2. I’m unable to eat anything with high amounts of oils/fats in it because of a malabsorbtion issue, including things like nuts, eggs and dairy. On top of that I’m in the midst of Canadian winter now, and for some odd reason I keep getting an itchy, flaky and red patch on my chin that never seems to completely go away regardless of what cream my dermatologist puts me on. I’m on some antibiotics for it too, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

  3. My friend’s Dermatologist told her that it is impossible to be itchy and cold at the same time (Unless the itch comes from an external reason like an itchy sweater or dry skin) Can you get a “random itch” when you are cold?

  4. Your tips are excellent. Drinking plenty of water has helped my skin stay hydrated in this dry Illinois winter, I miss San Diego…

  5. This is actually really really helpful information. I have horrifically dry skin during winter and was wonder how it was occuring and what I could do to stop it. I currently apply moisturiser like it’s going out of fashion, but keeping my hands gloved up and away from the cold might also be a measure I can take.

  6. Thanks for the post. Nice photo. Snow is exhilarating.I hate winter only because it makes my skin so dry and I can’t be in my usual completion. Your tips are really helpful for people like me to protect from this winter (Obviously to enjoy winter like everyone else too).

  7. I am using Retin A for its anti-againg properties and I am also finding it challenging in the cold winter weather. I made three changes in my routinue and my skin is happier:
    1. Since its’ the dryness, not just the cold that is causing problems, I use a humidifier in my bedroom.
    2. I cut back to using Retin A to just 3X/week, rather than every night.
    3. After applying Retin A, I top it with an a moisturizer. In your case I would use an oil free one.
    I am going to stay on this modified routine until spring or when I move to Maui, whichever comes first.

  8. My skin was dry, itchy and I was unable to cope up with this problem. I got to know about a website myskin.com via facebook. I followed the home remedies they have mentioned in their forum section. It worked well for me. Have a peep using ‘‘greatskin’’ as an invite code.

  9. Our Noble Formula Bar Soap with Pyrithione Zinc is very moisturizing.

    Ingredients are:
    Saponified Olive Oil infused with calendula, Saponified Emu Oil, 2% Pyrithione Zinc (combats flake, itch, dandruff), Oatmeal. It is a true cold process soap. Feels almost oily as you wash, but rinses clean.

    My 31 yr old daughter keeps her hands from cracking & bleeding, by using this soap. 23 yr old bought expensive face products for her occasional breakouts. It made her skin so much worse. She switched to NF Bar Soap with excellent results. Works on oily T-zone as it cleans while moisturizing, thus not inducing the skin to produce more oil. The bar lasts a long time.

    We’ve recently developed a variation on the above, replacing the Emu Oil with Shea Butter, for those who wish an ‘animal free’ product.

    I work for a physician owned company, selling products used mostly for problem skin (eczema, psoriais, seborhea, etc) but have great ‘general use’ products also. Noble Formula products contain the Pyrithione Zinc (ZnP). Noble Mystique products do not contain the ZnP.

    Thanks, Lorelei

  10. Do natural substances like Vitamin E, exotic kelp , keratin and CoQ10 which are found in the best natural creams for dry skin, start working at the skin’s cellular level to improve your normal production of collagen and elastins?

  11. I have benn putting pure coconut oil all over me when I get out of the shower each morning. Seems to work better than the lotions and creams.

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