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Winter skin image - woman on a bright snowy day wearing hat and jacket with moisturized skin

How to keep skin healthy, supple and glowing in winter months

Editorial note: an earlier version of this post first appeared on November 21, 2012. It was updated on September 24, 2020.

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In our Vancouver-area climate, we can be sure winter will come every year. While yes, we have wet, rainy weather most of the time, that doesn’t exclude us from dry, bitter cold weather. After all, it’s how we get powdery snow in our mountains for ski season!

But with our ‘winter wonderland’ comes the yearly bout of dry skin we have to deal with. You may have noticed that skin changes throughout the seasons of the year. It requires different types of care depending on the weather it’s in. With the cold of the winter season, your skin needs protection, more than anything else. This means preserving or adding to the natural oils in the skin. 

Winter skin care is not just a beauty or anti-aging issue; almost everyone can experience discomfort from stressed, winter skin. So in this article, we’ll explain ways you can keep skin healthy in winter months. These tips will also help to give you supple, glowing skin for all your holiday parties!

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Keep your environment moist, yet comfortable

When ‘normal’ skin becomes ‘dry’ skin, this is usually due to a lack of moisture in the air. While you don’t want your home or workplace to be wet, you do want to ensure the humidity is ‘just right.’ Ways to do that include:

  • Using a humidifier.
  • Not turning the heat up too high.
  • Not standing near a wood burning stove or fireplace.

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Keep yourself, and your skin, hydrated

Grapes and raisins representing hydrated and dehydrated skin

When your skin loses too much water (thanks to dry weather), it starts to peel and crack. The stinging feeling of opened, dry skin is actually from nerves being exposed to air. 

This process is called transepidermal water loss (or, TEWL, for short). Without water, your skin will have a very hard time functioning. Collagen renewal and other processes slow down. 

To avoid this from happening, follow these tips:

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Drink water, and eat hydrating foods

Of course, all year you should be drinking plenty of water. In the winter, try not to forget about it. Cold seasons may not be when you are most concerned about bringing a water bottle with you everywhere. But hydration is important in all types of dry weather – be they hot or cold.

On this note, you’ll want to reduce your intake of diuretics, such as caffeine and alcohol. These can be dehydrating.

Certain foods are also good for keeping your skin hydrated. These include the ‘good fats’ with omega-3s. Think: fish oils, avocado oils, flaxseed oils and walnut oils. 

Vitamins can also keep your skin in good health. Look for orange veggies, like sweet potatoes and carrots, which contain Vitamin A. Red and yellow peppers, along with tomatoes, are also good sources of Vitamin A and C. Vitamin C is known to help boost collagen, and to keep the skin hydrated. 

However, we should mention that a healthy diet should contain a variety of foods and multiple sources of vitamins. If you’re generally eating healthily, the effects should show up in your skin, too!

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Exfoliate less, but do exfoliate

Exfoliation and dead skin cells layers of epidermis illustration diagram

Exfoliation gets a little bit tricky in the winter time. On the one hand, you do want to exfoliate to remove the layers of dead skin in your epidermis, which are probably building up more than they should. That ‘dead layer’ may prevent your skin from being able to absorb moisturizers and serums.

However, over exfoliating can make matters worse. You can end up with even drier skin than you had before. So, here’s our advice:

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Try professional facials

HydraFacial treatment with blue tip - featured image for Surrey HydraFacial provider

A professional facial can help you exfoliate properly in the winter. When done correctly for your skin type and condition, med spa facials can re-infuse the beneficial ingredients your skin needs, to avoid extra dryness after exfoliation. For example, a HydraFacial™ is designed to do this. 

Or, a skin expert may recommend a stronger facial for your needs. But, they may ask that you follow up with certain products at home, to achieve the same ‘reinfusing’ effect. A perfect example of this scenario would be for very oily, acneic skin – the kind that can really use the pore-cleansing effects of a chemical peel, a carbon peel, or a microdermabrasion session. These don’t come with steps to rehydrate the skin while in the clinic.

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Be careful with at-home exfoliation

skin peeling for beauty treatment demonstration

At home, you’ll want to be extra careful with exfoliation. Firstly, you should always be doing this gently at home (no crushed up seed pits in your face scrubs please! And, no need to use a scrub brush). In the winter, cut back on the number of times per week, or per month, that you exfoliate with a mask or scrub.

The other thing to look out for are exfoliants in your skin care products. These include chemical exfoliants called alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, etc.) and beta hydroxy acid (this is always salicylic acid). Some people abbreviate these as “AHAs” and “BHAs.” 

Chemical exfoliants are great for mild exfoliation. But, if your skin is dry and peeling in the winter, these would be the first things to cut out of your skin care regimen. If you feel like you need them, add them back in slowly, while monitoring your skin’s ability to handle them.

Another group of exfoliating ingredients would be retinoids (vitamin A derivatives). Most commonly, people use a type of retinoid called retinol, which is sold over the counter. Retinol is a fantastic ingredient to use in your skin care routine. However, like with chemical exfoliants, it should be scaled back and monitored if your skin starts to feel drier than usual in the winter.

Try from our shop:

  • Sensitive Skin Cleanser by SkinMedica® (a mild cleanser that is perfect for ‘dry’ days).
  • AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser by SkinMedica® (a scrub for physical exfoliation once or twice a week).
  • AHA/BHA Cream by SkinMedica® (a leave-on exfoliant for oily skin).
  • Starting Up/Face® Wash by PRESCRIBED solutions® (a non-scrubbing face wash with AHAs and BHA).
  • Retinol Complex 1, 0.5 or 0.25 by SkinMedica® (a gentler form of retinol that uses encapsulated molecules to release vitamin A more slowly, and work more deeply in the skin).

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Don’t take hot showers!

Hot showers are tempting when you’ve come in from the cold. However, the heat can quickly evaporate your skin’s water content, which will already be in low supply during dry months.

So, don’t stand in a steaming hot shower, no matter how nice it feels on a cold day!

Regardless of the temperature of your shower, be sure to apply moisturizer immediately afterwards, when your skin is still a little damp.

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Do take warm baths with skin oils

While hot showers are a ‘no-no’ for healthy skin in winter, you can and probably should take warm baths infused with oils or skin calmers.

For example, an oatmeal or baking soda soak can be great for dry skin. If you don’t have a store-bought bath oil on hand, try olive oil or coconut oil from your kitchen. 

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Add hyaluronic acid and other humectants to your skincare routine

SkinMedica HA5 hyaluronic acid boxes packaging on shelf display

In the world of skin care chemistry, there is a classification of ingredients called humectants. These are water-binders in the skin. In other words, they hydrate your skin. 

Sometimes, drinking water internally is not enough. So, you can apply topical humectants to quench thirsty skin.

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is one of the most popular humectants out there. It can hold 1000 times its weight in water. This means that for every 1 molecule of HA in your skin, you get to keep 1000 molecules of H2O. Many other humectants act similarly. That’s why they’re included in many skin care products. 

Hyaluronic acid illustration diagram showing high molecular weight and low molecular weight HA penetrating skin for hydration
Diagram depicting high molecular weight and low molecular weight hyaluronic acid, to reach multiple layers in the skin.

Apart from hyaluronic acid, humectants can include:

  • Squalane
  • Glycerin
  • Sorbitol
  • Propylene glycol
  • Panthenol
  • Lactic acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Stearyl alcohol
  • Aloe

And more.

The better quality the product is, the higher concentration, and better kinds, of humectants you’ll find (usually).

If your humectant comes as a standalone ingredient, such as in a serum and not a moisturizer, make sure you ‘lock it in’ with a moisturizer or oil right away. Otherwise, water will continue to evaporate out of your skin.

Try from our shop:

  • HA5™ Rejuvenating Hydrator by SkinMedica® (an advanced HA serum, using different molecular structures to hydrate different layers of skin).
  • Hydrating Cleansing Cloths by Colorescience® (biodegradable makeup removal face wipes with hydrating ingredients in them).
  • Hydrating Mist by Colorescience® (an ‘over makeup’ setter and hydrator to use throughout the day).

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Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize

Male man applying skin care on face with fingers

Above we mentioned humectants. In a way, humectants are part of moisturization. However, when we talk about “moisturizers,” we are almost always talking about products that ‘lock in’ water with fats and oils.

Particularly, your skin’s structural fats are called ceramides. Ceramides hold your skin cells together, like ‘glue.’ So, products with ceramides in them are a ‘plus.’

Another way to look at fats and oils in moisturizers, are as water sealants. They make it so that water can’t escape as easily out of your skin.

This is why thick creams, butters and ointments, like petroleum jelly or shea butter, are excellent for very dry skin (and lips!). It’s also why we recommend skin oils be used on top of your other skin care products. They help to keep in all the ‘good stuff.’

If your skin is dry in winter, that means too much water is escaping out of it. You need to apply moisturizer regularly, to help build up it’s barrier.

Try from our shop:

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Use milder cleansers, and avoid irritating skin care products

SkinMedica facial cleansers near sink for face washing and skin care products

Whether on your face, your hands or your body, try to avoid drying products that come in contact with your skin. Common ‘covert’ culprits are ‘fragrancy’ things that smell nice (even if they are scented with essential oils!). These can serve to dry your skin even more, rather than help it. Alcohols can do the same thing (like the ones in astringents and toners). 

Another major source of household products causing skin dryness is soap. Yes, soap.

So, should you not clean yourself anymore? No, you should definitely keep clean, especially during flu season.

That’s where non-soap cleansers come into play. 

You see, traditional soaps are made of animal fats and some sort of akali. Alkali in soap-making is usually sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH). However, all alkali is alkaline (of course). That means it is the opposite of acid on the pH scale. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral.

Why is this important for dry skin sufferers? Because, skin usually holds a pH of about 4.5 to 6.5. So, it likes to be slightly acidic. When you use alkaline substances on your skin, they can make you feel dry, and lead to other issues, like acne.

In the case of cleansers, believe it or not, ‘natural’ is not always better. Science can be amazing. We now have synthetic cleansers that are not made of soaps. They can more closely match your skin’s pH levels. When a product claims it is “not soap” or is “soap-free,” that’s what you want to veer towards. This goes for body washes, face washes and the like.

Generally – whether or not your cleansers contain alkaline substances (which they might, even if they’re ‘good’), you want one that won’t strip your face of oil. The goal is to remove dirt, makeup and dead skin cells, while leaving your skin barrier intact. In the winter, you may need an extra-gentle cleanser to do this, since your skin will already be depleted of its natural oils.

Try from our shop:

  • Sensitive Skin Cleanser by SkinMedica® (also mentioned above, this is a gentle, moisturizing cleanser without fragrance).

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Protect your skin with sunscreen, even in winter

SkinMedica Total Defense + Repair SPF with Daily Physical Defense Sunscreen Lotion and Lytera 2.0 Skin Pigment Brightener on display in our Surrey skin care clinic

We say this on almost every page of our website: wear sunscreen!

No matter what skin concern you want to fix, it’s always going to require a commitment to daily, regular use of sunscreen. Lasers and cosmetic procedures can only do so much. The rest is up to your habits; prevention is the best remedy!

It is a myth that sunscreen is only needed when you’re out in the sun. UV rays can reach us through clouds, and through windows. Worse, in the winter, they can reflect off of snow, cement and other surfaces.

Sun damage also forms long before skin cancer appears. So, sunscreen is not just for that. Sun damage is essentially equivalent to skin aging. Wrinkles, brown spots, sagginess, dryness – it is all exacerbated by UV exposure. The sun degrades skin by way of free radical damage. This is the same process that happens when you smoke, or eat unhealthy food!

If you want to keep your skin healthy in winter (and all year), wear a high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen. Then, reapply every 2 hours to stay protected all day. You should also avoid being in direct sun as much as possible.

The only change you should make with your winter SPF, is to opt for one that may be a little more moisturizing. If you use a moisturizer underneath SPF already, this shouldn’t be an issue.

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Healthy winter skin is simple; change your routine a little, and you’ll be supple and glowing all season!

As we’ve seen above, keeping skin healthy and supple all winter simply requires a few changes in your routine. Some people can get ‘stuck’ on a few skin care products, which they keep stocked in their medicine cabinet. But, it’s ok to change things up a little, especially as the weather changes. In fact, some people change their skin care products from day-to-day, depending on how their skin is feeling.

When it comes to dry winter skin, keeping it’s barrier intact will also help it retain water. This can be done by keeping the environment humid, staying hydrated internally, replacing products that dry the skin, using moisturizer and wearing sunscreen daily.

Also remember: summer bodies are made in winter! You shouldn’t just be booking your winter facials at this time of year. This is the perfect time for laser treatments that require no sun exposure, such as laser hair removal, laser skin rejuvenation and more. Fat removal and cellulite treatments also take time, so the ‘prep work’ for bathing suit season is best done in winter.

If you live in the Vancouver area, we encourage you to come in for a consultation at our clinic (in Surrey). We have a plethora of cosmetic tools on hand, to help you achieve your best look, in a physician-controlled environment.

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