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March 13, 2023 • read

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Common skin problems in winter and how to prevent them

Your skin’s your body’s protective, external layer, so it feels changes in season more acutely. And the cold, dry air of winter can spur a number of different skin issues. Here are some of the most common winter skin problems and the winter skin care tips you’ll need to deal with them.

What happens to skin in winter?

Your skin’s protective moisture barrier, called the stratum corneum (SC), provides a multitasking defence that mainly protects it from pathogens like bacteria, while helping it to retain moisture. But, winter air is dryer than its summer counterpart, and regular exposed skin can compromise your SC.

A compromised moisture barrier doesn’t work as well, making it harder for your skin to retain moisture. Loss of moisture reduces your skin’s flexibility, leading to increased rigidity, skin overgrowth, and cracking. This makes it more susceptible to new issues and guarantees that any existing ones will worsen.

If winter’s taking a toll on your skin, we can help. Maple’s a telehealth platform that connects you with Canadian-licensed doctors and specialists from your phone, tablet, or computer. You can speak with a skincare specialist for a skincare routine to help soothe your dry, irritated winter skin.

Or, if you’re already dealing with an underlying skin condition or more severe symptoms, our online dermatologists are here to help — no referral needed. During your appointment, the dermatologist can diagnose your condition and provide a treatment plan, including any necessary prescriptions.

What are the most common winter skin conditions?

Cold, dry air can wreak havoc on your skin. Here are some conditions you’re most likely to see during winter.

Cold urticaria

It may be hard to believe that cold allergies exist, but that’s what cold urticaria is. Exposure to cold temperatures causes skin allergies like skin rashes, hives, welts, redness, or itching for individuals with this condition. These symptoms can crop up immediately or develop within a few hours of exposure.

Reactions can also range from mild to severe anaphylaxis, landing you in the hospital. Usually, symptoms are localized to the exposed skin only, but systemic symptoms can occur. Most often, these are triggered by swimming in cold water, which carries a significant risk of death due to anaphylactic reaction, and drowning during a reaction.

Because cold urticaria is an allergy, treatment options are geared toward addressing the immune response. This means taking over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines in response to symptoms or before going outside to head off a reaction before it starts.

Layering up with scarves, hats, mitts, or a balaclava to protect your skin from the cold is also helpful, as is avoiding extreme cold water swimming — like a polar plunge.

But beyond that, seeing an allergist is a good idea if you think you have the condition. It’s possible to outgrow cold urticaria, but subsequent reactions can also become more severe and require an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen).

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a response or allergic reaction in the skin caused by direct contact with an irritating substance. It results in a red, itchy rash that can affect any part of your skin — even the eyelids. While it happens all year round, cold, dry weather often aggravates existing dermatitis, making winter an especially reactive time.

Addressing contact dermatitis requires a multi-pronged approach. To begin, identify your triggers — from personal care to household products to clothing and beyond — and avoid them.

In addition, you can help to shore up your natural moisture barrier by adding a thick moisturizer into your winter dry skin routine, making sure to reapply after hand washing and before bedtime.

For reactions that happen despite your best efforts, a hydrocortisone cream or topical steroid can help address any discomfort you’re experiencing.

Windburn

There are two schools of thought about windburn. Some experts agree that the combined effects of cold, wind, and lack of humidity can break down the primary layer of your skin, causing the redness, swelling, and peeling commonly associated with windburn.

However, others attribute these symptoms to sunburn. They argue that so-called windburn is caused by UV rays breaking through clouds and reflecting off snow and ice.

Whatever its underlying cause, you can take steps to protect yourself from this condition. Since it’s most likely to affect your face, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 before you go outside — even on cloudy days.

Beyond that, shield your face from the elements with scarves, neck warmers, and hats and wear sunglasses and ski goggles to protect the areas around your eyes.

If you already have windburn, moisturize the affected skin and avoid hot water or harsh cleansers. An OTC pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen should do the trick to address any discomfort or tenderness.

Eczema

A chronic condition that makes it hard for your skin to retain moisture, eczema causes extremely dry, itchy skin, small raised hives, and red patches. These areas can also become gray or brown, thicken, or crack. Eczema can appear anywhere on the body, but it’s more common on the hands, neck, face, inside the elbows, and on the backs of knees.

Moisturizing, avoiding irritants, limiting hot water exposure, or taking a bleach bath — yes, it’s a real thing — can all help to relieve symptoms. Treatment goals are to repair the skin barrier, reduce inflammation, and avoid flare-ups. But, since winter’s dryness tends to make eczema flare-ups that much worse, you might need more help than at-home remedies can provide once the cold sets in.

A dermatologist can help assess your eczema and determine the most appropriate treatment options. These can include prescription corticosteroids or calcineurin inhibitors, which are medicines that suppress your immune response. Alternatively, anti-inflammatory medication and UV light therapy may provide relief.

Psoriasis

Plaque psoriasis is the most common form of this chronic skin disorder. Manifesting in red, itchy, scaly plaques or lesions on the skin, it most commonly affects the scalp, elbows, and knees.

You can’t prevent psoriasis, but you may be able to minimize symptoms. Use a thick emollient cream and add oil or colloidal oatmeal to bath water to decrease the likelihood of dry skin. In addition, avoid rough fabrics and other skin irritants.

Moreover, since stress is a known trigger for psoriasis, incorporating meditation or breathing practices into your day may help.

Despite your most diligent efforts, psoriasis usually requires additional treatment, so speaking to a dermatologist is a good idea. They may suggest topical steroids or retinoids to reduce skin growth and thickening, among other options.

Winter itch

If your skin starts itching as soon as the indoor heating turns on and stops when spring rolls in, you may have pruritus hiemalis. Also known as winter itch, this condition can afflict skin anywhere on your body except the hands, face, scalp, and feet.

Its exact cause isn’t known, and winter itch doesn’t offer clear visual symptoms. Its telltale signs are sudden episodes of itchiness, especially at night, resulting in an overwhelming urge to scratch. This can lead to raw, bleeding, and thickened skin.

Thankfully, adding an intensive moisturizing lotion to your skincare routine can help to prevent the condition. And cold compresses and oatmeal baths can alleviate any associated itchiness.

Acne

Winter can be especially rough for acne. Dry indoor heating and lower air humidity prompt your skin to produce more oil. Unfortunately, this can produce excess sebum, leading to clogged pores, blackheads, whiteheads, and the telltale large, red pumps of acne.

While your natural reaction might be to want to dry this oil out, don’t. Your skin overproduces sebum in response to being too dry. Drying it out can send it into overdrive, prompting the opposite effect from the one you want.

Instead, wash your skin with a gentle cleanser and follow up with a non-comedogenic moisturizer. Pair that with a daily chemical exfoliant containing salicylic acid to clear pores, and use an oil-free moisturizer with hyaluronic acid afterwards to avoid dryness.

If this still doesn’t help, speaking to a dermatologist can provide an alternative solution. They may suggest prescription topicals like retinoids or antibiotics or oral medications like antibiotics or the combination pill.

Chapped lips

Your lips can bear the brunt of the cold weather, often leading to dryness during the winter. It’s natural to lick your lips in response, but as your saliva evaporates, it can increase dryness, perpetuating a vicious wet-dry cycle and disrupting the natural skin barrier, causing inflammation.

Moreover, saliva contains digestive enzymes. These can irritate the delicate skin of your lips, leaving you with lip-licking dermatitis, a condition characterized by dry, scaly, cracked lips and red skin around your mouth.

Fortunately, applying a hydrating sunscreen-containing lip balm when your lips feel dry can be both treatment and prevention. However, if your symptoms are severe and you find this isn’t enough to keep dryness at bay, consider speaking to a dermatologist. They may recommend an OTC or prescription hydrocortisone cream to address the dryness.

Risk factors for skin problems during winter

Living in a cold climate is a risk factor for winter skin problems, as are those hot showers and steamy baths that can be so comforting in winter. Even using indoor heating can result in dry winter skin. How to treat it isn’t a mystery, luckily — a thick moisturizer will usually do the trick.

How can I prevent skin damage in winter?

In a word: sunscreen. UV rays don’t disappear just because it’s cold outside. You already know that sunscreen helps prevent sunburn. But, since UV light impairs your skin’s natural barrier function, sunscreen can also protect your SC to help it retain moisture better.

How can I improve my skin in winter?

Prevention methods are paramount to improve your skin during the coldest months. And the answer comes down to hydration. Your winter skincare routine likely includes a thicker moisturizer already, but keeping your skin hydrated in winter doesn’t need to stop there. If possible, reach for a moisturizer that contains essential lipids called ceramides.

In addition, drink enough fluids to keep your urine clear, and use a clean humidifier to boost indoor moisture levels. You’ll also want to ditch harsh or drying cleansers in favour of gentle moisturizing ones.

Beyond that, watch what you put next to your skin. Itchy fabrics can irritate it, while hats, scarves, and anything else that come into contact with it should get washed regularly.

How Maple can help with your winter skin issues

If you’re slathering on cream and lotion and still experiencing dry skin or other winter-related skin issues, it’s time for more help.

Speaking to a skincare specialist or a dermatologist should be your next step. Your skin is your body’s largest organ and its natural armour. Making sure it’s taken care of isn’t about vanity– it’s necessary for maintaining good health.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional. 

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