Healthy Living

Just Add Water: Quenching Your Winter-Parched Skin

Mar. 3, 2014

Freezing temperatures and harsh winds can wreak havoc on our skin. Mix cold, dry, windy weather with indoor heating and the result for your skin may be an itchy, scaly mess. UR Medicine Dermatologist Dr. Mary Gail Mercurio explains why our skin is so parched in winter and offers advice for quenching it.

Just as a hairdryer draws wetness from your locks, the drier atmosphere literally pulls moisture out of your skin. The technical term for this is transepidermal water loss, and in its wake it leaves dehydrated skin cells or—as you know it—flaky, dry skin.

On top of that, our bodies prepare for winter in a way similar to other mammals. Blood flow centralizes, as it focuses on keeping the organs in your body in working order. As a result, blood is drawn away from your skin. That contributes to cold hands and feet and seasonally dry skin.

woman's hands with moisturizerHere are a few tips to help fight flakiness and soothe your scaly skin:

  • Soap it up: Choose a soap that is moisturizing, at least for the winter months. Deodorant or medicated soaps can be harsh and drying. Avoid formulas that contain salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, which tend to strip skin of essential oils and cause further dryness.
  • Smooth it on: Moisturize at the right time and with the right product. Applying lotion while your skin is still damp—right after bathing—will help seal in moisture. Choose a moisturizer that is thick and holds up to hand washing. A good moisturizer makes dry skin look smoother and feel softer. It adds moisture to the outermost layers of skin, plumping up the dehydrated skin cells and eliminating the scaly, dry appearance.
  • Cover it up: Just like sunscreen is important in the summer, hands and face need to be protected in winter from the cold. Wear gloves when you’re outdoors. If you will be outdoors for a long period of time, with prolonged exposure to extreme cold, consider applying a layer of petroleum jelly to protect your face from the elements. And indoors, avoid exposures that aggravate already dry hands. Wear protective gloves for dishwashing and other chores to steer clear of harsh detergents and chemicals that can make the problem worse.
  • Just add water: Central heating and fireplaces can dry out your house and your skin. Use a humidifier to add moisture indoors. Keep hydrated by drinking water, which may also help combat dryness.
  • Age matters: Our skin produces less oils as we age and is more prone to drying out, so take extra care as you age. Women may be especially vulnerable since declining estrogen levels can reduce skin’s moisture-holding capacity.

In severe cases, itchy dry skin may require a prescription product. There is a spectrum from dry skin to eczema. Once the skin gets inflamed and itchy, solely moisturizing may not bring it back. It’s best to avoid letting it get this bad by taking preventive measures and "winterizing" your skin-care routine at the first sign of cold weather.

But if it’s severe, call your doctor.


Mary Gail Mercurio, MD


Mary Gail Mercurio, M.D., is a Professor of Dermatology and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. She has specific clinical and research interest in skin and hair disorders in women.