How to Prevent Skin ‘Winter Itch’

By Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist


Your skin needs help staying hydrated during the winter months. Exposure to windy and cold outdoor weather followed by hot and dry indoor air pulls moisture from your skin. In the winter I see dry skin on most of my patients. In fact, my own skin will become dry, chapped, itchy and red if I am not diligent with good hydrating skin care practices. This seasonal phenomenon of dry skin has been called ‘winter itch’.

There are simple steps you can take to prevent or treat ‘winter itch’. In general, you first need to cleanse without harsh soaps. Second, you need to apply an effective moisturizer immediately after washing. Third, you should protect your skin from environmental damage.

The good news is that if you give your skin a little extra attention in the winter, it will be as soft and hydrated as it is during warmer and more humid weather of summer. Simple Tips for winter skin care:

1. Cleansing: The big point here is the sparing use of mild cleansers that are rinsed well after use! Harsh soaps strip the natural oils from the outer protective layer of your skin. As you lose these precious natural oils, your skin becomes even more sensitive to the harsh soaps. With continued soap exposure, you end up with dry and sensitive skin that is even more vulnerable than normal to absorbing other harsh chemicals like house cleaners, solvents, acidic foods etc. Contact with these items further chaps and irritates your skin, making it more vulnerable to soaps and harsh chemicals, and on and on it goes. The end result is dry, chapped, itchy or stinging skin.

The trick is to use only mild soaps such as the glycerin and oil soaps available at specialty boutiques or natural food stores, or soapless cleansers without sodium laurel sulfate such as Toleriane Cleanser. (Sodium laurel sulfate is the foaming agent in most cleansers. There are many names for sodium laurel sulfate like ingredients and they can all be irritating. I recommend avoiding any ingredient that sounds like sodium laurel sulfate such as sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate etc.) In addition, all soaps and cleansers need to be rinsed completely from the skin, preferably using warm water and avoid using hot water to bathe or rinse your skin which will result in further stripping oils during the bathing process.

In the bath or shower, only apply soap to areas of your skin that need to be cleaned really well. These areas are usually the places where we produce body odor or excessive oil. The sites for body odor include: the armpits, groin, buttocks and feet. Oil production is greatest on the face, ears, upper chest and back.

To summarize, winter skin cleansing should include the sparing use of mild cleansers that are rinsed well after use.

2. Moisturizing: This is an essential step to perform in the winter. Your skin can’t compete with the climate. With bathing, even if you follow my cleansing recommendations to the letter, there will be an elimination of some of those precious natural skin oils. This means adding some oil in the form of moisturizers.

There are two important points to moisturizing: timing and product quality. With timing, moisturizers applied after bathing capture the water that soaked into your skin during the bathing process. This means that for moisturizers to work best, apply them within three minutes after stepping out of the bath or shower. For dry hands, apply moisturizer immediately after washing and drying and as many times as possible during the day.

Product quality is much more complex to understand. In order to choose a good moisturizer, it’s helpful to understand how moisturizers work. Moisturizing products add oil to the skin, trap water and smooth and polish the skin in a way that improves barrier function, making it less likely to dry out or become irritated.

The important ingredients in moisturizers are: the oils, the water binders and the barrier enhancers:

The most common oil ingredients are petrolatum and mineral oil. There are also many natural oil ingredients such as shea butter, sesame seed oil, and other food based oils.
Water binding ingredients include glycerin (as in Glycolyx Elite Facial Cream and Intensive Hand Cream), lanolin from wool, hyaluronic acid (as in Replenix CF Cream) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s) such as lactic and glycolic acids. The AHA’s also enhance the barrier strength of the skin by compacting and tightening the outermost skin layer called the stratum cornium. In doing this, they also give the skin a smooth and polished look. The AHA’s can however be irritating if the skin is chapped.
If your skin is chapped, start with a gentle non-AHA moisturizer such as Glycolyx Elite Facial Cream, Nivea Cream or Nivea Rich Caring Milk, Vanicream or Dr. Hauschka’s Rose Body Moisturizer or Rose Day Cream . Once the chapping has resolved you can advance to AHA’s. For the body this would include Glytone Body Lotion in our Body Rejuvenation Kit, or AmLactin Cream. For the face, products such as Glycolyx Elite Facial Cream with 15% glycolic acid, or Glytone Facial Cream #2.

3. Environmental Protection: Protecting your skin from damaging environmental stressors such as sun light, harsh climates and chemicals is as important in the winter as it is in the summer. The key points here are:

Continue wearing sunscreen every day
Apply products with effective antioxidants for skin protection and repair, and
Use barrier products to provide a protective coating on the skin surface.
Remember, UVA rays are equally intense all year round and they permanently damage your skin. UVA is what I call the ‘wrinkle ray’. It penetrates the skin more deeply than the summer sunburn ray UVB, and that’s how wrinkles occur.

To keep UVA from penetrating your skin, apply a broad spectrum sunscreen all year round. In my opinion, micro sized zinc oxide is the best broad spectrum sun protection ingredient available. I recommend that my patients apply a product containing at least 5 % microsized zinc oxide to sun exposed skin every day of the year (Citrix Sun Screen, Glycolyx Elite Sunscreen or Solbar Zinc provide this protection).

In addition to sun protection, good antioxidant skin care products are also important; they do make a difference to skin health. Replenix CF Cream is my favorite antioxidant protection for facial skin. CRS Cell Rejuvenation Serum is another very powerful antioxidant product. It contains vitamin C, which helps build collagen.

Lastly, products with dimethicone or simethicone (such as Intensive Hand Cream and CRS Cell Rejuvenation Serum) will temporarily leave a protective film on the skin to help slow water loss, chapping or irritation during contact with harsh climates, soaps or chemicals.

With carefully selected skin care products, used consistently throughout the winter, healthy, soft, hydrated skin is as possible to achieve in winter as it is during the warm summer months.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for these awesome tips! I will definitely try to keep them in mind and apply a sunscreen on a daily basis.