Are any of you wondering why it seems like your moisturizer isn’t working as well as it used to? You’re not alone. Every year around this time people come to me complaining that their moisturizer just doesn’t seem to be as powerful as it used to be. “Aha!,” I’ve exclaimed, in the nicest way possible of course, “It is not your moisturizer! It’s just winter.” It’s true that people experience increased dry skin in the winter. But this year I decided to do a little more digging to find out exactly why. As it turns out, there is startlingly little scientifically sound explanation to be found, and myths abound.  As is often the case, it falls to us to sift through the nonsense and make some sense of this issue.

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First, let’s dispell the myths:

When weather gets cold, it gets dry. This is claimed so often and by so many “reputable sources” that I almost took it at face value myself. But when I decided to double check this pervasive claim, it completely fell apart. I looked at historical charts of humidity levels across the United States throughout the seasons.* It turns out that humidity levels show no particular trend from summer to winter. In fact, in many cities, even Northern cities, humidity levels are higher in the freeze of winter than in the bask of summer.

The winter is blustery and wind dries out the skin. Many of us can recall experiencing our share of cold, windy winter days, and could swear that we experience “windburn”, characterized by dryness, redness, and irritation after being outside on these blustery days. But a look at the evidence forces us to consider other possible causes. The only experiment I could find was performed all the way back to 1937, and was published in Popular Science. Scientists founds through using a wind tunnel that wind alone does not create “reddening or chapping” of the skin. Furthermore, upon browsing through historical wind speed charts, I found that that much like humidity levels, wind speeds show no yearly trend. There is no evidence of higher winds in the winter months. Regardless of all this evidence against the wind creating redness, dryness, and irritation, many sources not only talk about the existence of windburn, but will even explain why it occurs. The most widely used explanation is that wind removes surface lipids (oils) from the skin. Exactly how the wind performs this feat is conspicuously absent from all of these articles. Furthermore, if wind is just as strong in the summer, why don’t people seem to experience windburn as much in the summer? Another common explanation that attempts to explain windburn, which is the current explanation on Wikipedia, is that windburn is actually just sunburn caused by the wind removing surface lipids (oils) which help protect us from UV rays (another claim I am yet to find evidence to support). While the wind can remove some of these surface lipids year round, they say, the removal of the surface lipids in the winter coincides with a season when we do not protect our skin as valiantly from the sun. Thus the redness and irritation people experience is simply a sunburn. This explanation is incomplete at best, and completely misinformed at worst. Yet another explanation, albeit less frequently posited, claims that wind removes sweat, which normally helps filter UV rays. Again, how sweat helps filter UV rays is conspicuously absent.

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Whew. So, now that we have gone through the myths, the fact remains that many people experience dryer skin in the winter. Why? After looking at all of the available evidence, I have a hunch it can be attributed almost entirely to:

Artificial heat: Mother nature can heat up or cool down the great outdoors while keeping humidity levels steady, but when we heat indoor areas, this lowers humidity. When you look at the science of relative humidity (I won’t bore you), this is how it works. For an everyday example, notice how when you heat your bathroom while taking a shower there is less steam in the air. Since most of us live and work in artificially heated indoor environments in the winter, it’s likely we experience long-term exposure to lower humidity environments during the winter months. This dries out the skin, causing many of us to wonder why our moisturizer isn’t working as well as it used to. Back to my original point, “It’s not your moisturizer!” And introducing my new, improved answer, “You’re living in lower humidity indoor environments in the winter!”

And what about the cold? Strangely, none of the authors or reporters writing about winter and dry skin mention the effect cold air itself has on the skin. However, I have a hunch extreme temperatures may figure into a complete explanation of why some people experience dry skin in the winter. When we expose our skin to freezing temperatures, the skin reacts through natural protective methods, most prominently by withdrawing blood from the surface of the skin to protect core temperature. This is the first step which ultimately leads to the skin freezing which causes frost bite and cell death. My hunch is that perhaps even during shorter duration exposure to freezing temperatures which people sometimes experience on cold days, the skin still reacts through a more mild form of cell death. This mild cell death, while not as apparent as the blisters caused by frostbite, is evidenced by flakiness or dryness as the dead cells flake off. The redness experienced by many people after exposure to winter weather, while it would require further research for me to be more definitive, could be the result of cell death or simply the body returning blood to areas where it has been withdrawn.

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So, what can we do about it?

1.  Humidify your home/workplace. Install a humidifying system into your central heat. Alternately, if you use wood burning stoves or kerosene heaters, you can place pots of water on top and let the water evaporate, then repeat. You can always boil a large pot of  water on the stovetop as well, being careful to keep a close eye on it of course. There are commercially available electric stand-alone humidifiers as well. 60% humidity is a good general goal to shoot for. You can measure humidity with widely available humidity measuring devices which are available at most hardware stores, or you can be more relaxed about it and just notice how you–and your skin–feel. When the humidity reaches a comfortable level you will feel less dry and generally more comfortable. You should also notice less static electricity, less shocks, and less frizz to your hair. An easy way to tell if you’ve gone too far and over-humidified your space is if your windows start to pool water at their bases.

Perk: Adequately humidified air feels warmer than dry air at the same temperature. In other words, you can get away with heating to a lower temperature.

2.  Use more moisturizer: An extra pump or two of moisturizer each time you apply should help.

3.  Add jojoba oil: Since jojoba oil does not evaporate, 5-6 drops of jojoba oil added into your moisturizer each time you apply it will provide a boost of all-day moisture support.

*Yes, I know. There is more to the world than the United States, but…well, okay fine, I have no excuse. I’ll make a note to look outside the U.S. for my next research-related blog. :-)

18 thoughts on “Winter and dry skin – what causes it and what can we do about it?

  1. Very informative, I appreciate your research since I can relate. Winter dry skin and acne are my struggles right now. Thank you!

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  2. Not a big deal but I would like to point out that 90% humidity in the summer is very different from 90% humidity in the winter since warmer air is able to hold more moisture. For this reason, humidity levels alone would not serve as a good comparison.

    This is the reason why a humid day in the South or in South Asia for example is going to be much wetter than a humid day in Seattle.

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  3. Nathaniel is right,

    The higher the temperature, the more moisture in the air for a constant relative humidity. Check out psychrometric charts.

    As for the cold weather, this is pure speculation but maybe the cold acts as an astringent and constricts our pores allowing less secretions of natural oils which can also increase dryness ?

    And the redness, maybe overcompensation for the change in temperature… blood vessels overdilating to increase circulation in areas with typically low blood flow? Again… just guessing.

    Reply
  4. Dan, I can’t understand how you still feel that moisturizer is good for acne prone skin! Acne and moisturizer do not mix in my opinion!

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  5. Thanks for sharing such an informative article Dan.

    I get dry skin a lot and I am so troubled about it.Thanks you because you let me know about what solutions would I do about it.Thanks.

    Reply
  6. This winter I’ve spent a negligible amount of time outdoors (I live in Montana, and I’d much rather be in Arizona for the winter months!), and yet my skin has been absolutely terribly horribly dry – far worse than I have ever experienced it, and I’m using gobs of moisturizer, following the Regimen but with extra moisturizer throughout the day/night, and it’s hardly having an impact. Since I’m not spending time outdoors, my experience is anecdotal evidence that Dan is dead on about the temperature being largely irrelevant. I keep the indoor temperature very consistently between 70°F and 72°F, temperature gauge right next to my computer.

    After I read this, it turned out there was a humidifier hiding in the house, I cleaned it up and it’s running full blast, I’ve been watching the humidity (also on the gauge) climb from 27% to 32% and rising, hope to have it sufficiently high soon. I feel in a very good position to (hopefully!) confirm the second part of Dan’s post. :) I’ll see how it goes and update here.

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  7. I have read several times Dan suggesting for us to add the jojoba oil to our moisturizer. This would make sense to do because jojoba oil is a non-comedogenic oil that moisturizes skin well without clogging pores. The thing I am not getting is that Dan’s moisturizer already has tons of jojoba oil in it. Jojoba oil is the second listed ingredient on the ingredient list on the acne.org moisturizer. I am not seeing the point in adding more to it. Is there a difference in jojoba oil that is mixed into the formula and then jojoba oil that is mixed in after the product has gone through production? or Is it just an unnecessary step in adding more jojoba oil to a product that already has tons of jojoba in it already?

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  8. @Will

    Your answer seems to be here: http://www.acne.org/messageboard/increase-jojoba-oil-con-t230657.html
    and here: http://www.acne.org/blog/2010/11/01/more-answers-to-your-questions/

    To give you better personal control it would seem.

    I also swear in previous blog posts there was some information on SPF formulation and jojoba and the recommendation by necessity was for the jojoba to be separate in that particular case for some reason. I looked for the post but couldn’t find it.

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  9. @ John

    Moisturiser is usually essential for acne prone skin, especially if you are treating it with Benzoyl Peroxide. Dry, flaking skin triggers acne.

    Great article, I love the way Dan actually does such thorough research into acne. Definitely have noticed for me in the last few years in winter (my skin is becoming less oily) I have a tendency to outbreak due to dry skin, which I think can be attributed to artificial heating in winter and the consequent lack of humidity in the air.

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  10. @Jerry

    I don’t know what you are talking about. I love the new moisturizer. I think it solves most if not all of the problems I had (and many others had) with the old moisturizer. In fact, I found a bottle of the old moisturizer around and I cut it open and scrapped out the last bits of it.* I have been using it recently alternating between the two. I honestly cannot distinguish between the two in terms of which moisturizes better. I might have to say the old one moisturizes better, but the difference is minuscule. Both do a great job with that. On the other hand, when I apply the old moisturizer I look so oily it is ridiculous. Then when it dries I still have this strange “wet” look. Plus, I am a little red. I also find it extremely difficult to be gentle enough putting it on to not cause it to irritate. However, I think that is a result of the product and not my procedure. Now, with the new moisturizer I cannot “rub it in”. I have to allow it to absorb, but it does this fairly quickly (I find that the treatment is what takes a long time to absorb). So, initially I am yellow and wet. However, when it is dry I have a very dry look. By that I mean that I do not look oily and I do not look dry. My skin looks healthy like a pastel medium. I look hydrated, but not wet or oily. Now, in the past I had always thought to myself how much I like the licorice root extract aspect of the AHA+ and would like to use it constantly. However, I could not handle using the AHA+ on a daily basis. So, I think it is wonderful that the licorice is in the moisturizer because that gives a nice plain gentle base for the stuff to be in. It is something I can use as often as I want because all it is is moisturizer.

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  11. I agree with Will. I had no idea there were any bad reviews because I was so happy with mine. I have no idea why people would have such a bad reaction to the new moisturizer, especially since I have never experiences a single one of their complaints.

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  12. Relative humidity is dependent on temperature, so if it is 80% humidity and 20 degrees then it is a lot less humid than 80% humidity and 90 degrees. Hot air can hold more water. You know this because when temperature drops at night in the summer, the air releases the humidity it is no longer capable of holding and that becomes dew. I would re-check your data on seasonal humidity with this point in mind. The problem with artificial heat is that, with the total amount of water in the air remaining the same, it raises the temperature, thereby dropping the relative humidity from where it was before the heat. This drop in humidity causes the skin to dry out more

    Reply
  13. I agree with Jerry, the new moisturizer is bad…and looking at the reviews, many agree.
    I did everything Dan tells us here to do (added extra pumps, jojoba oil) but it still dried me up like a desert. And this was in the first weeks of October. That’s not exactly winter.
    I love this site, I love Dan, but I think it’s time to come up with an alternative.

    Reply
  14. Old post, but here’s an update…

    The humidifier doesn’t seem to have made a difference. The only thing that has changed is I’m using the new moisturizer. I have to agree with Jerry and Carrie, the new moisturizer is nowhere near as effective as the old. I could apply BP twice a day and use the old moisturizer and be fine, with the new moisturizer I *MUST* apply BP every other day, sometimes once a day, and this is too much. My skin is drier than I’ve ever experienced, it’s misery. Even applying the new moisturizer in ample quantity far more than should be necessary (3 or more times a day) with BP down to once a day or less, it does nothing. The new moisturizer also seems to make my face itch (though that could just be the dryness). I absolutely cannot apply the level of BP I need with such an ineffective moisturizer, it’s either painful itchy dryness or pimples.

    I’ve been on the regimen for 2.5+ years (in a cold climate, Montana) and it’s worked great, but something is seriously wrong here, the new moisturizer, which seemed great at first, seems deeply flawed. Perhaps low humidity is sabotaging the moisturizer somehow, and/or the temperate acne.org California weather is holding it together, I don’t know how else to explain the conflicting reports, but there is a problem. I’m attempting to use some alternate moisturizers right now to determine if the problem ceases (although these aren’t likely to be as effective as Dan’s old moisturizer). I’ll update here simply because if Dan’s new moisturizer isn’t responsible, I don’t want to leave misinformation around with my name on it. ;)

    Reply

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