After starting the year with sub-zero temperatures and wind chills, it is evident that Minnesota’s cold, dry winter air will be here for the long haul – along with its potential effects on skin health.

Since winter air can have a variety of impacts on skin dryness, Ronda Farah, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians), shares her top tips for helping keep skin healthy during the dry winter months.

How winter air can affect skin

“Winter air in Minnesota is typically very dry, which can pull moisture out of the skin,” Dr. Farah says. “Some patients have baseline dry skin, so if you are dry at baseline, then the winter air can make symptoms even worse.” 

These symptoms of dry skin include:

  • Itching or irritation
  • Flaking or scaling
  • Cracks that may bleed

Patients who have eczema or “atopic dermatitis” are also likely to feel greater impacts of drier air, too, Dr. Farah notes. In that family of skin conditions, patients already have a compromised skin barrier, so dryness can pull even more moisture out, which makes it harder for that skin to stay hydrated. “I also think of my psoriasis patients. The winter air can be hard on them, too, so moisturizing is important for everyone.”

Keeping skin moisturized

According to Dr. Farah, there are a variety of things people can do to help keep their skin from drying out during the winter, which they should discuss with their doctor. The first thing Dr. Farah often recommends is using the right kind of moisturizer, and she encourages her patients to look for those that are fragrance-free. There are three different groups of moisturizers patients can most readily find and consider:

  • Lotions, which are primarily water-based and help skin keep low levels of moisture
  • Creams, which contain a balance of oil and water and help skin retain moderate amounts of moisture
  • Ointments, which primarily consist of oil and can lock the most moisture into the skin

In the winter, Dr. Farah advises opting for a cream or an ointment, with one notable exception: “Patients with acne should be careful with what they choose to apply. I don’t typically recommend ointment on the face for those with acne because it can be more greasy, so they could consider a cream labeled for the face instead.”

With the ongoing need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by wearing face coverings, Dr. Farah also frequently advises her patients with facial acne to limit applying extra moisturizer to areas masks often touch as a way of preventing “mascne”, or acne that is exacerbated by mask-wearing. “If patients need to moisturize their face, it’s important to be cognizant that our masks may already help keep that area moist.”

As far as when to apply, “Regular application is important,” Dr. Farah says, which is the best way to keep skin from becoming dry throughout the day. “After taking a shower or a bath, it’s usually best to blot-dry skin with a soft towel and moisturize immediately to keep the moisture from the bath or shower.”

That leads to another piece of advice Dr. Farah usually offers her patients: “Limit hot showering, which can really dry out the skin. I often recommend turning down the temperature a touch and keeping shower or bath time to no more than 10 minutes.” 

Dr. Farah says that during the winter months, her patients often ask what they can do to keep their lips from getting dry, too. “It’s a fairly common question, and using a fragrance-free lip balm, petroleum jelly or an ointment can often help.”

When to see a doctor

Dry skin and its symptoms can typically be helped at home, but there are a few signs Dr. Farah says patients should monitor. “If you develop a rash, something red or scaly or itching that doesn’t resolve with routine moisturizing, then it might be time to see a board-certified dermatologist,” Dr. Farah says. 

“What’s great now is that we have teledermatology, which can sometimes make it easier for us to see patients without having them come into the office during their work hours or travel through the inclement winter weather we often have in Minnesota,” Dr. Farah says. 

No matter what Minnesota’s winter weather may bring, says Dr. Farah, “We’re here to help our patients keep their skin healthy for the long-run.”