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Acne and eczema flare-ups in the winter: what you need to know

December 2, 2021 • read

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Acne and eczema flare-ups in the winter: what you need to know

Winter weather can be a disaster for your skin. While it might seem obvious that indoor heating and dry winter air would cause dry skin, itching, flaking, and intensify your eczema so much that you may need eczema treatment, many complain that winter weather also aggravates acne. If you’re wondering what triggers your winter eczema or seasonal acne and how to counteract it, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s how the coldest season affects your skin and what you can do about it.

What is acne?

Acne is incredibly common. It’s most likely to happen during the hormonal surges of your teenage years — thank you puberty – but any hormonal fluctuations can trigger it, like those surrounding pregnancy and menopause as well as certain medications. Acne affects about 20% of Canadians — everyone from babies to seniors. 

A variety of factors can contribute to acne, but its underlying cause is the same for everyone. Your skin produces an oil called sebum as part of its natural moisturizing process, especially the skin on your face, back, and shoulders. Whiteheads and blackheads happen when this sebum builds up inside your pores, mixing with dead skin cells and causing a clog. 

To end up with a pimple, you have to add in the bacteria propionibacterium acnes, which is present on everyone’s skin and feeds on sebum. Almost everyone gets the occasional pimple, whitehead, or blackhead. If you have chronic acne, however, your skin produces excess sebum, making clogged facial pores more likely. 

Often, propionibacterium acnes get trapped in these clogs, triggering an inflammatory immune response from your white blood cells. The pustules and redness that are the hallmarks of acne are actually part of your body’s immune response to propionibacterium acnes bacteria infecting your pores. The resulting pus is actually a mixture of white blood cells, dead skin cells, and dead bacteria.

What causes acne in the winter?

While summer humidity and all that sunscreen might seem like the perfect storm for acne, many report that winter air and harsh indoor heating inflame their acne too. It might seem counterintuitive that cold, dry air causes seasonal acne, but these harsh conditions compromise your skin’s natural moisture barrier. Your body responds by producing more sebum to protect and hydrate your skin. And, since propionibacterium acnes feed on sebum, more sebum causes it to multiply, upping your likelihood of developing acne.

What is eczema?

Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is not contagious. It’s a chronic, pruritic (itchy), inflammatory disease that causes two main issues. The first is a defective skin barrier which is less effective at keeping moisture in and harmful substances out. The second is an immune system which causes the skin to overreact to harmless substances. This results in inflammation, lesions or rashes, redness, and itching ranging in severity from mild to so itchy that you may have trouble sleeping, and even scratch to the point of bleeding. Eczema can appear on different areas of the body — from your scalp to your eyelids to your toes, and it can be localized or widespread. It’s classic presentation, however, is appearing on the hands, head, neck, insides of elbows, and behind the knees.

Doctors aren’t quite sure what causes eczema, but they do know that both genetics and environmental factors play a role. They also know that eczema often goes hand-in-hand with hay fever, asthma, and allergies. While there’s no cure, some children with eczema can outgrow it, and there are a number of effective remedies, from light therapy to prescription eczema treatment.

What causes eczema in the winter?

You might find that you’re able to keep your eczema under control during the summer months. The winter, however, is extra challenging, and many notice their eczema worsening as the temperature falls. Your skin has a natural moisture barrier called the stratum corneum (SC). This barrier is responsible for keeping good things in (like moisture) and bad things out (like bacteria). 

Dry winter air is harsh on most people’s skin and can compromise your SC, allowing more moisture to escape. Because of its defective skin barrier, however, eczema makes it hard for your skin to retain moisture. This means your skin cells tend to get dehydrated and lose elasticity. This difficulty retaining moisture coupled with a lack of moisture in the cold weather can cause dry skin and rashing, flaky skin, extreme itching, and even bleeding. Beyond the dryness though, there are additional triggers. 

What triggers winter eczema and how do you prevent it?

It’s normal to crave warm, toasty environments during the winter months, making you want to layer up. But, those additional blankets and multiple layers can result in overheating and sweating. When you sweat, your body secretes minerals that can irritate broken eczema skin. 

Additionally, damp, sweaty clothing can cause friction, setting off your sensitive eczema. Certain fabrics that you’re more likely to wear in winter — especially wool — can also be too rough on skin, which is why it’s best to choose cotton linens and clothing when possible.

Bathing during wintertime can be especially difficult to navigate if you have eczema. Hot water is one of the sure-fire ways to stop the itchy, eczema feeling. But hot water leaches moisture from your skin more readily than cold. So while it’ll soothe your skin in the short run, using hot water increases your skin’s dryness and itching long-term.

Canadian winters mean less sunlight, which translates to less vitamin D. Some evidence suggests that lower vitamin D levels are correlated with increased incidence and severity of eczema. While more research is needed, if you have eczema, you might find it beneficial to speak to a doctor about adding a vitamin D supplement over the winter months.

How can you clear your skin of acne and eczema in the winter?

While you might have come to dread the winter months because of skin issues, the good news is you can adjust your skincare routine to lessen your symptoms. Here’s how.

1. Change up your skincare routine

As the seasons change, your skincare routine should too. Moisturizing should be part of your daily skincare routine anyway, but it becomes even more crucial during the winter months. A damaged SC means that eczema skin has trouble keeping moisture in. And with the dry, winter environment leaching more moisture, hydration is even more important. This makes it crucial to start using a thicker, or medicated moisturizer once the temperature starts to drop. Consider applying a moisturizing balm underneath gloves and covering your face as much as possible before going out as well. 

And, if you don’t already, make sure to apply your moisturizer immediately after bathing or showering to lock in moisture. Keep in mind that dryness can also increase sensitivity so you’ll want to use a mild, liquid cleanser. Certain skin products you were using happily during the summer months may be too harsh for your winter skin. This is especially true of exfoliants or any astringent products. 

When it comes to acne, start by washing your face with a gentle cleanser. You’ll also want to incorporate an exfoliant to clear out those dead skin cells before they get a chance to clog your pores. But, beware of physical exfoliants. They use tiny abrasive granules which are too rough for acne-prone skin. Instead, you’ll benefit the most from using a chemical exfoliant, especially one with salicylic acid or retinol. It may seem counterintuitive, but balancing that with a moisturizer is one of the best things you can do for seasonal acne. Your skin produces more sebum because it’s not getting enough moisture. If you step in with more hydration in the form of a non-comedogenic (not pore-clogging) moisturizer, your skin may scale back on some of its oil production. And don’t forget to apply your sunscreen — acne treatments can make your skin much more sensitive to UV rays.

2. Keep hydrated

Hydration is a crucial factor when it comes to skin health — even more so in winter. While sweat is an obvious sign of water loss in the warmer months, you’re less likely to be aware of evaporative water loss during the winter. Set yourself an hourly reminder to drink water during the colder months. In addition, you’ll want to work on your environment. 

Using a humidifier at home, especially while you’re sleeping, will help to inject some much-needed moisture into the air. You’ll still need a comprehensive winter skincare routine, but it’ll help to mitigate some of the effects of that dry winter air.

3. Keep hot baths and showers to a minimum

One of the easiest ways to alleviate any moisture loss from your winter skin is to lower the temperature of your bath or shower. Yes, a hot bath after experiencing cold weather is one of life’s great pleasures, but lowering the water temperature by just a couple of degrees can make all the difference to your skin. 

You can also experiment with shortening baths or showers. If you find that you’re still craving a bath for your eczema, try adding oatmeal to the water for a soothing treatment.

4. Watch what you put next to your skin

Whether you’re prone to eczema or acne, your skin is likely to be on the sensitive side. That means that anything that goes next to your skin is a potential irritant. Minimize drying or oily hair products near your hairline and change your pillowcases more often to minimize dirt and oil buildup next to your skin. If you wear makeup, give yourself a day off from wearing it each week to let your skin breathe. Additionally, make sure to wash your brushes and makeup applicators regularly with antimicrobial soap. Applicators can be a hiding place for bacteria, leading to breakouts.

Lastly, keep a log of any flare-ups or breakouts to see if you can spot a pattern. Some people find certain foods may affect their acne or eczema, or that a new scarf, soap, or laundry detergent is causing issues. 

There’s also the added complication of regular mask-wearing. The moisture and friction from wearing a mask can exacerbate eczema or cause acne, also known as “maskne.” To counteract this, hold off on wearing makeup on the areas around and under your mask. You should also change your mask regularly, and expose your skin to fresh air whenever it’s safe to do so.

While there are simple steps you can take to help manage seasonal acne or eczema in the cold weather, sometimes more support is needed. Dermatologists treat a wide variety of skin conditions and with the proper diagnosis, can offer you eczema treatment or acne medication. With Maple, you can see a dermatologist online within 24 hours. Book an appointment with a dermatologist for a personalized plan to treat your winter eczema or acne.

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