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Managing ‘Winter Skin’: Reducing the Itch, Dryness and Flaking

Managing ‘Winter Skin’: Reducing the Itch, Dryness and Flaking


Winter is a season of comfort: snuggly clothes, comfort food, cuddles and snuggling under blankets in front of the TV. Unfortunately it is also associated with dry, scaly and itchy skin that can cause significant discomfort. This post will explain why this occurs and what you can do to reduce the symptoms of ‘Winter Skin’. Photo by Lisa from Pexels


Dry skin is also known as ‘xerosis’. It has many causes, with cold environments being one of many! The symptoms of itching, flaking, scaliness and rough skin often appear with xerosis alongside lowered elasticity.  The skin may also be more prone to damage and slow repair.  Xerosis can also be present in skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis or psoriasis, and when Winter hits, these conditions can become aggravated (1,2,3,4).


The environment has a major impact on the skin. Low air humidity is one of the major causes of Winter Skin. During Winter, their air tends to be low in humidity which creates a difference in the percentage of water in the air in comparison to the skin, with the skin containing a higher percentage.  Due to this, the air draws water from the skin causing skin dehydration. Without adequate skin water levels the skin becomes dehydrated and also has the potential to progress into dryness when the skin cannot form an adequate structure containing nourishing and protective skin lipids. Low temperatures also enhance skin dryness, as does being in artificially heated rooms which dry the air creating low humidity (1,3,5,6,7). Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


A lack of water in the skin has many detrimental effects. Water is essential for optimal skin function, as it is crucial for biochemical reactions that keep the skin healthy.  These biochemical reactions include skin cell production and movement, production of our skin lipids (called ceramides), natural exfoliation of our skin cells every 28 days and the formation of our barrier function. Water is also essential for the production of Natural Moisturising Factor molecules within our skin.  These molecules are hygroscopic, which means that they have the ability to bind and hold on to high volumes of water at our skins surface to allow it to be pliable, hydrated and smooth alongside a well-functioning environmental barrier (1,2,5).


This is why skin therapists are so passionate about skin hydration as without it, our skin becomes fragile, rough and under-functioning. This can lead to sensitive, sore, cracking, flaking and thickened skin which is itchy and irritated.  This type of skin also has poor water binding properties which cyclically perpetuates the concern.  If there is also low-grade inflammation within the skin, for example in cases of eczema, dermatitis or psoriasis, the winter environment can enhance the symptoms associated with these conditions. This is why some people tend to find their eczema is worse in Winter rather than in Summer when the air is more humid (1,5,7).


The first areas of our body to experience ‘Winter Skin’ are usually the hands and the face. This is because they tend to be uncovered and therefore fall victim to environmental conditions first. This is why we get such dry lips and hands in Winter! The legs are also commonly affected, making them look scaly and flaky.  It is also important to consider that as we have been experiencing a world-wide pandemic over the past 12 months our handwashing and hand rubbing routines have increased dramatically to combat COVID-19. This also enhances dry skin (1,5,7). Photo by Tree of Life Seeds from Pexels


So what can we do to prevent, reverse or reduce the symptoms of ‘Winter Skin’?  Moisturising every day, sometimes twice, is key to reversing and preventing skin dryness! Moisturisers provide a protective barrier over the surface of the skin, which is known as ‘occlusion’. By providing this protective layer, the moisturiser holds moisture within the skin preventing water loss which over time helps to build skin hydration levels. Quality moisturisers also contain specific ingredients designed to enhance skin hydration through various mechanisms. There are too many to mention in this post, however, some of the common ones are discussed below (4,10).


  • Moisturisers often contain ‘humectants’. These ingredients are scientifically proven to enhance skin hydration, correct the defects caused with dry skin and enhance skin elasticity. One of the most researched humectants is glycerin (1,3) Photo by Linda Prebreza from Pexels

  • Hyaluronic acid and niacinamide are also common moisturiser ingredients as well as standalone serums for addressing skin dryness. Hyaluronic acid can bind over 1000 times its own weight in water making it a valuable skin hydrator, and niacinamide is crucial for the production of skin lipids which form the skin structure as well as being anti-inflammatory to relieve redness and itch (8,9,10)
  • Emollients are designed to soften the skin to relieve dryness, itching and scaling. Squalane is often found in facial moisturisers, as is shea butter. Cocoa butter, which is heavier on the skin, is commonly found in body moisturisers.  Beeswax is also commonly found in lip balms (4)
  • Alpha hydroxy acids such as Glycolic and Lactic acid, when used in low concentrations, also acts as humectant ingredients which can bind and hold onto water within the skin (2,3)
  • Synthetic ceramides mimic the chemical structure of the lipids within our skin. Ceramides are essential for building the protective, waterproofing barrier of our skin and without then our skin is prone to dryness and dehydration. This is why synthetic ceramides are very useful in skincare products to help rebuild the skin structure and hold adequate levels of water within the skin (3,4,5)
  • Skin exfoliation with enzymes reduces the dysfunctional surface skin cells and encourages the production of healthy cells. Exfoliation needs to be used in conjunction with adequate moisturising products (2)
  • Soap, hot water baths and showers and detergents (dish washing and hand washing) draw water out of the skin causing dehydration. Long term exposure to these can cause chronic dryness, skin flaking, scaling and itching in the area of contact, for example the hands and the body, and therefore by not exposing yourself to these irritants you can prevent the skin from drying out (1,4,5)


‘Winter Skin’ is a very common concern among the population. It commences with dehydration due to the dry, cool air zapping moisture from the skin, and progresses into dryness causing scaling, flaking, itch and poor elasticity. By moisturising every day with appropriate skincare products, skin dryness can be relieved and even prevented.  By visiting your skincare professional, they can advise on an appropriate skincare regime to support you in addressing ‘Winter Skin’. If you have any questions post them in the comments!


  1.  Proksch, E., Berardesca, E., Misery, L., Englblom, J., & Bouwstra, J. (2020). Dry skin management: Practical approach in light of latest research on skin structure and function. Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 31(7), 716-722. https://doi.org/10.1080/09546634.2019.1607024
  2. Harding, C. R., Watkinson, A., & Rawlings, A. V. (2000). Dry skin, moisturisation and corneodesmolysis. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 22, 21-52. 
  3. 10.1046/j.1467-2494.2000.00001.x
  4. Pennick, G., Chavan, B., Summers, B., & Rawlings, A.V. (2012). The effect of amphiphilic self-assembles lipid lamellar phase on the relief of dry skin. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 34(6), 567-574. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2494.2012.00749.x
  5. Yosipovitch, G. (2004). Dry skin and impairment of barrier function associated with itch – new insights. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 26(1), 1-7. 
  6. 10.1111/j.0142-5463.2004.00199.x
  7. Ishikawa, J., Yoshida, H., Ito, S., Naoe, A., Fujimura, T., Kitahara, T., Takema, Y., Zerweck, C., & Grove, G. L. (2012). Dry skin in the winter is related to the ceramide profile in the stratum corneum and can be improved by treatment with a Eucalyptus extract. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 12(1), 3-11. 10.1111/jocd.12019
  8. Yoshida-Amano, Y., Nomura, T., Sugiyama, Y., Iwata, K., Higaki, Y., & Tanahashi, M. (2017). Dry skin conditions are related to the recovery rate of skin temperature after cold stress rather than to blood flow. International Journal of Dermatology, 56(2), 176-183. 10.1111/ijd.13436
  9. Dean, E. (2021). Wash, dry, repeat: Protecting your skin this winter. Nursing Standard, 36(2), 58-59.10.7748/ns.36.2.58.s20
  10. Luger, T., Seite, S., Humbert, P., Krutmann, J., Triller, R., & Dreno, B. (2014). Recommendations for adjunctive basic skin care in patients with psoriasis. European Journal of Dermatology, 24(2), 194-200. 10.1684/ejd.2014.2294
  11. Gehring, W. (2004). Nicotinic acid/niacinamide and the skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 3(2), 88-93. 
  12. 10.1111/j.1473-2130.2004.00115.x
  13. Zhu, J., Tang, X., Jia, Y., Ho, C. T., & Huang, Q. (2020). Application and delivery mechanisms of hyaluronic acid used for topical/transdermal delivery – a review. International Journal of Pharmaceutics, 578, 119127-119137. 10.1016/j.ijpharm.2020.119127