Jack Frost Nipping At Your Nose: Winter Skin Changes

Prepare your skin for cold weather by understanding how it changes during winter

Credits: Alisa Anton at
Edited By:
Raja Sivamani , MD, MS, AP

As the temperatures outside drop and the humidity decreases, the winter season is inevitably going to make your skin less happy. Skin becomes more easily irritated and cracked.[1,2] Wrinkly skin will look a bit more wrinkly. Dry skin will become more flaky. Sensitive skin will be more more red. All because cold and dry weather worsens the skin barrier and increases its tendency toward irritation.[3] 


How The Skin Normally Works...

Skin is comprised of multiple layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis. The top layer of the epidermis, the stratum corneum, consists of dead cells that slough off and are replaced by new cells from the deeper layer.[4] This layer contains many fat molecules, known as lipids, that help form the skin-water barrier and maintain skin moisture.[6] In a comparison of skin on the face and arms, the facial skin was more sensitive to changes in the environment, particularly in the winter months.[7] The study suggested that the stratum corneum layer of the epidermis had a higher turnover rate during winter, particularly on the exposed facial cheek areas, leading to poorer skin barrier function and greater water loss through the skin.[7]


Winter Skin Damage

Protein damage and loss of fat cells can damage the skin, leading to tightness, dryness, irritation, and itching.[8] Most often, the damage to the barrier leads to dehydration of the skin and resulting pain and inflammation. In a study examining how easily the skin is irritated, participants noticed seasonal differences between the summer and winter.[9] In another study examining environmental irritating factors, low temperature and low relative humidity were risk factors for developing dry, irritated skin on hands.[10] Often the dry skin irritation can occur with increasing age as well due to decreased activity of the skin’s oil glands that help maintain the stratum corneum layer of the epidermis.[11,12] Dry skin and asteatotic eczema have decreased levels of lipids (oils) in the cells of the water-skin barrier.[13]


Watch Out for Soap! 

While environmental changes in the temperature and dryness can strip the skin of moisture, contact with soaps and other materials can further worsen skin irritation. Frequent hand washing with soap or even water alone can irritate the skin.[14] Initially, the skin damage is not easily visible, but over time, the skin will begin to appear as scaly, red, irritated skin and may have burning sensations.[15,16] Skin cleansers can alter the skin barrier and selection of a gentle wash can be beneficial in reducing skin irritation.[8]


Table 1 – Triggers for Dry Skin



Frequent handwashing with warm water

Use hand lotion or cream after washing to reduce further moisture loss.[17]

Irritating hand soap

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help reduce dryness and inflammation.[18] In skin that is broken, alcohol can be irritating and it is important to use seek medical attention of your hands are cracked, painful, or draining pus.

Face Wash

Cleanser with neutral or acidic pH.[8]

Dry skin

Use nourishing moisturizers like those with ceramides[13]

What's Your Skin Type

Each article on Dermveda is unique, just like you. Find your skin type and save your results to get articles that are compatible with you.


  1. Malten KE. Thoughts on irritant contact dermatitis. Contact Dermatitis.1981;7(5):238-247; PMID: 7030611 Link to research.
  2. Blondeel A. [Eczematous dermatitis: contact or/and atopy...]. Rev Med Brux.2008;29(4):383-388; PMID: 18949992 Link to research.
  3. Agner T, Serup J. Seasonal variation of skin resistance to irritants. Br J Dermatol.1989;121(3):323-328; PMID: 2803958 Link to research.
  4. OpenStax C. Human Anatomy & Physiology. Rice University; 2014.
  5. Yousef H, Sharma S. Anatomy, Skin (Integument), Epidermis. StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls PublishingStatPearls Publishing LLC.; 2017.
  6. Marks R. The stratum corneum barrier: the final frontier. J Nutr.2004;134(8 Suppl):2017s-2021s; PMID: 15284392 Link to research.
  7. Kikuchi K, Kobayashi H, Le Fur I, et al. The winter season affects more severely the facial skin than the forearm skin: comparative biophysical studies conducted in the same Japanese females in later summer and winter. Exogenous Dermatology.2002;1(1):32-38; Link to research.
  8. Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Moore DJ, Subramanyan K, et al. Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing. Dermatol Ther.2004;17 Suppl 1:16-25; PMID: 14728695 Link to research.
  9. Basketter DA, Griffiths HA, Wang XM, et al. Individual, ethnic and seasonal variability in irritant susceptibility of skin: the implications for a predictive human patch test. Contact Dermatitis.1996;35(4):208-213; PMID: 8957639 Link to research.
  10. Uter W, Gefeller O, Schwanitz HJ. An epidemiological study of the influence of season (cold and dry air) on the occurrence of irritant skin changes of the hands. Br J Dermatol.1998;138(2):266-272; PMID: 9602872 Link to research.
  11. Norman RA. Xerosis and pruritus in the elderly: recognition and management. Dermatol Ther.2003;16(3):254-259; PMID: 14510882 Link to research.
  12. Tezuka T. Electron-microscopic changes in xerosis senilis epidermis. Its abnormal membrane-coating granule formation. Dermatologica.1983;166(2):57-61; PMID: 6852317 Link to research.
  13. Akimoto K, Yoshikawa N, Higaki Y, et al. Quantitative analysis of stratum corneum lipids in xerosis and asteatotic eczema. J Dermatol.1993;20(1):1-6; PMID: 8482746 Link to research.
  14. Tsai TF, Maibach HI. How irritant is water? An overview. Contact dermatitis.1999;41(6):311-314; PMID: 10617210 Link to research.
  15. Uter W, Gefeller O, Schwanitz HJ. Frühe irritative Hautschäden bei Friseurlehrlingen. Der Hautarzt.1995;46(11):771-778.
  16. Schwanitz H, Uter W. Interdigitalraumekzem. Neue Wege zur Prävention-Paradigma Friseurekzem.1996:151-158.
  17. Kampf G, Ennen J. Regular use of a hand cream can attenuate skin dryness and roughness caused by frequent hand washing. BMC Dermatol.2006;6:1; PMID: 16476166 Link to research.
  18. Boyce JM, Kelliher S, Vallande N. Skin irritation and dryness associated with two hand-hygiene regimens: soap-and-water hand washing versus hand antisepsis with an alcoholic hand gel. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol.2000;21(7):442-448; PMID: 10926393 Link to research.