In Canada, the winter weather is harsh and can wreak havoc on your skin.
Cold to freezing temperatures can damage your dry skin. Furthermore, cold temperatures often mean low humidity, which also dries out your skin. Bitterly cold winds can also strip moisture from exposed skin. And during the winter there is also potential for UV damage from sun exposure.
This article with cover:
- What is dry skin?
- What causes dry skin?
- What is your skin barrier?
- Winter conditions that affect dry skin
- Cold temperature causes dry skin
- Low humidity causes dry skin
- Wind exposure causes dry skin
- Sun exposure causes dry skin
What is dry skin?
Dry skin appears dry, rough, and may scale and flake. It may also show premature signs of aging, like fine line, surface wrinkles and loss of elasticity.
Dry skin is skin that is lacking water, humectants and fats. Humectants absorb and hold water, while fats coat the skin and seal in moisture. When there is not enough water, humectants or fats, skin barrier disruption can occur, further worsening symptoms of dry skin.
Read more: What is Dry Skin?
Symptoms of dry skin include:
- Loss of skin elasticity.
- Skin feels tight, dehydrated.
- Skin appears dull, rough and blotchy.
- Slight to severe flaking, scaling or peeling.
- Fine lines and wrinkles are more pronounced.
- May have irritation and a burning sensation.
- May have itching.
Anyone can develop dry skin.
What causes dry skin?
Dry skin is very common and can occur for a variety of reasons. You may have naturally dry skin. But even if your skin type is normal or oily, you can still develop dry skin from time to time. Dry skin can affect any part of your body.
Dry skin can be caused or worsened by:
- Exposure to cold weather
- Low humidity levels
- UV radiation and sunlight
- Harsh soaps or detergents
- Swimming in chlorinated pools
- Long and hot showers or baths
What is your skin barrier?
Your skin barrier protects you from physical, chemical, and microbial insults, and prevents the loss of water from your body.
The skin barrier includes the outermost layers of skin, called the stratum corneum.
Your skin barrier is essentially what you can see and touch on the surface of your body.
When your skin barrier is healthy, it feels and appears smooth, soft, and plump.
In contrast, a damaged skin barrier looks dry, rough, dull, and dehydrated, and may become irritated and inflamed.
The stratum corneum can be thought of as a brick wall that protects you.
The "bricks" are the skin cells, called corneocytes, and the "mortar" that holds the bricks together is the lipids or fats, that together create the outer barrier.
The stratum corneum is the most outer layer of the epidermis and is the layer directly exposed to the external environment.
Learn More: What is The Skin Barrier?
Exposure to winter weather can weaken your skin barrier and its protective functions.
It is broadly accepted that skin barrier functions may be negatively affected by winter conditions (reviewed by Engebretsen et al, 2016), including:
- cold temperature
- low humidity
- wind exposure
- sun exposure
1. Cold temperature causes dry skin
As the skin temperature gets lower, your skin first perceives thermal discomfort, then cold and cold pain. At the same time, your skin loses finer elements of tactile sensation, it feels numb and at the end of this development your skin does not sense even pain any more (Eero et al 2002).
What is frostbite?
Anyone who has felt the sting of frostbite knows that cold temperatures can damage your skin.
Frostbite can occur during cold-weather activities when the temperature is below 0°C (<32°F). When skin temperature is -4°C (25°F), ice crystals form in the blood, causing mechanical damage, inflammation, thrombosis, and cellular death. Lower temperatures, higher wind speeds, and moisture exacerbate the process (Knapik et al, 2020).
2. Low humidity causes dry skin
Daily insults from the environment, such as low humidity, wind, and sun, can lower the skin's water content, causing improper desquamation and the appearance of dry, flaky skin (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007).
Water is essential for the normal functioning of the skin.
The water content of skin is remarkably high - the epidermis (the outer skin layer) contains more than 70% water, while its outermost layer, the stratum corneum has been shown to contain ~15 - 25% water (Warner et al, 1988; Caspers et al, 2001; Caspers et al, 2003).
Adequate hydration of the stratum corneum serves three major functions (Fowler, 2012):
- it maintains plasticity of the skin, protecting it from damage
- it contributes to optimum stratum corneum barrier function
- it allows hydrolytic enzymes to function in the process of desquamation
When the water content of the stratum corneum falls below 10%, scaling on the skin surface becomes visible (Rycroft, 1985).
Learn more: What is Dehydrated Skin?
When your skin is exposed to a dry environment, it could be more susceptible to mechanical stress (Engebretsen et al, 2016; Wildnauer et al, 1971).
Studies in humans demonstrated a reduction in transepidermal water loss (TEWL) (a measure of the integrity of the skin's barrier function) with low humidity, alterations in the water content in the stratum corneum, decreased skin elasticity and increased roughness (Goad et al, 2016).
A study on dry facial skin found a higher dryness score with low temperatures, high wind speed and low humidity (Cooper et al, 1992) and as little as 15 min of cold and dry air has been proven to significantly decrease skin hydration (Roure et al, 2012). These data suggest that a reduction in temperature leads to a decrease in skin hydration and transepidermal water loss (TEWL), and that this effect is stronger when relative humidity is low (Cooper et al, 1992; Roure et al, 2012).
Factory workers and aircrew personnel who work in ultra-dry working conditions showed more frequent skin symptoms and higher prevalence of atopic dermatitis than those of controls (Sato et al, 2003; Chou et al, 2007).
What is best humidity level for skin?
It is generally thought that humidity levels within occupied spaces should not exceed 60%, and when levels of humidity fall to around 30% or below, occupants begin to feel thermal discomfort (Goad et al, 2016).
3. Strong wind causes dry skin
Strong cold winds can also strip moisture and fats from exposed skin and disrupt the skin barrier.
In a study with healthy female adults, a decrease in skin hydration and an increase in dryness score were found after the exposure to cold and dry wind (Roure et al, 2012).
Strong winds may also strip the beneficial fats in your skin barrier.
What are beneficial fats in your skin barrier?
There are many beneficial fats and lipids that are naturally found in your skin barrier and play a critical role in keeping your skin healthy.
The surface of your skin is covered by a layer of protective fats, including epidermal lipids and sebum.
Epidermal lipids are released from keratinocytes (skin cells), and are a mixture of ceramides, free fatty acids and cholesterol. These lipids are released from skin cells and fill the spaces between the cells, like mortar or cement (Pappas, 2009).
Sebum is an oily, waxy substance produced by your body’s sebaceous glands and eventually released to the surface of the skin. Sebum is primarily made up of non polar lipids as triglycerides, wax esters and squalene. Sebum coats the skin, seals in moisture, and protects your skin from getting too dry (Pappas, 2009).
Beneficial fats and lipids help to lubricate and coat your skin cells and, nourish your skin.
- Strengthen the skin barrier.
- Improve the appearance of skin.
- Make skin feel soft and smooth.
- Reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Relieve dry skin, flaking and scaling.
- Reduce redness and inflammation.
4. Sun exposure causes dry skin
Ultraviolet (UV) exposure from sunlight can damage dry skin.
UV energy includes UVA, UVB and UVB radiation. Each component of UV can exert a variety of effects on cells, tissues and molecules (D'Orazio et al, 2013).
Chronic exposure to UV irradiation leads to photoaging, immunosuppression, and ultimately skin cancer (Matsumura et al, 2004).
UV exposure can also lead to oxidative stress and free radical damage.
Free radicals are unstable molecules or atoms that can damage skin cells.
Free radicals are generated from normal aging, and by daily environmental damage - such as UV radiation from the sun and air pollution. Free radicals cause destruction to your cells and tissues, and accelerate skin aging (Masaki et al, 2010).
Antioxidants, such as vitamin E protect your skin by neutralizing unstable free radicals.
In temperate latitudes, UV peaks on the summer solstice and is lowest at the winter solstice (Sliney et al, 2006), though indirect, diffuse UV can still be high in winter (Kerr et al, 2005; Reiter et al, 1982; Blumthaler et al, 1988).
The UV Index is low during the winter in Canada, but skiing and other outdoor winter activities can increase your exposure. Bright white surfaces like snow can double your exposure to UV. If you are skiing or doing other activities in the mountains, you will receive even more UV due to the elevation.
UV exposure from the sun is still a concern during the winter months in Canada and proper sunscreen or sunblock should be worn when spending time outdoors.
What causes dry skin on your face during winter?
Winter weather is harsh on your dry skin.
Cold temperatures, low humidity, wind and sunlight exposure can dry your skin and damage your skin barrier.
Dry skin appears dry, rough, and may scale and flake. It may also show premature signs of aging, like fine lines, surface wrinkles and loss of elasticity.
It is important to protect your skin against winter weather.
Asset G, Pury D. Deposition of windborne particles on human skin. AMA Arch Ind Hyg Occup Med. 1954 Apr;9(4):273-83.
Brajkovic D, Ducharme MB. Facial cold-induced vasodilation and skin temperature during exposure to cold wind. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Apr;96(6):711-21.
Blumthaler M, Ambach W. Human ultraviolet radiant exposure in high mountains. Atm Environ. 1988;22:749–753.
Caspers PJ, Lucassen GW, Carter EA et al. In vivo confocal Raman microspectroscopy of the skin: noninvasive determination of molecular concentration profiles. J Invest Dermatol 2001; 116:434– 42.
Caspers PJ, Lucassen GW, Puppels GJ. Combined in vivo confocal Raman spectroscopy and confocal microscopy of human skin. Biophys J 2003 July; 85: 572-80.
Cooper MD, Jardine H, Ferguson J. Seasonal influence on the occurrence of dry flaking facial skin. In Marks R and Plewig G, eds. The Environmental Threat to the Skin, Vol. 159. Martin Dunitz, London, 1992; 159–164.
Eberlein-König B, Spiegl A, Przybilla B. Change of skin roughness due to lowering air humidity in climate chamber. Acta Derm Venereol. 1996 Nov;76(6):447-9.
D'Orazio J, Jarrett S, Amaro-Ortiz A, Scott T. UV radiation and the skin. Int J Mol Sci. 2013 Jun 7;14(6):12222-48.
Engebretsen KA, Johansen JD, Kezic S, Linneberg A, Thyssen JP. The effect of environmental humidity and temperature on skin barrier function and dermatitis. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016 Feb;30(2):223-49.
(2002) The skin in the cold, International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 61:3, 277-286.
Fowler J. Understanding the Role of Natural Moisturizing Factor in Skin Hydration. Practical Dermatology. 2012; July. 36-40.
Goad N, Gawkrodger DJ. Ambient humidity and the skin: the impact of air humidity in healthy and diseased states. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016 Aug;30(8):1285-94.
Gong J, Liu J, Ronan EA, He F, Cai W, Fatima M, Zhang W, Lee H, Li Z, Kim GH, Pipe KP, Duan B, Liu J, Xu XZS. A Cold-Sensing Receptor Encoded by a Glutamate Receptor Gene Cell. 2019 Sep 5;178(6):1375-1386.e11.
Jung M, Kim I, Lee JY, Kim HM, Kwon M, Kim M, Lim KM, Kim PS, Ahn K, Kim J. Exposure to cold airflow alters skin pH and epidermal filaggrin degradation products in children with atopic dermatitis. Allergol Int. 2020 Jul;69(3):429-436.
Kerr JB. Understanding the factors that affect surface ultraviolet radiation. Optimal Engineering. 2005;44.
Knapik JJ, Reynolds KL, Castellani JW. Frostbite: Pathophysiology, Epidemiology, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention. J Spec Oper Med. 2020 Winter;20(4):123-135.
LeBlanc J, Blais B, Barabé B, Côté J. Effects of temperature and wind on facial temperature, heart rate, and sensation. J Appl Physiol. 1976 Feb;40(2):127-31.
Masaki H. Role of antioxidants in the skin: anti-aging effects. J Dermatol Sci. 2010 May;58(2):85-90.
Matsumura Y, Ananthaswamy HN. Toxic effects of ultraviolet radiation on the skin. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2004 Mar 15;195(3):298-308.
Morris-Jones R, Robertson SJ, Ross JS, White IR, McFadden JP, Rycroft RJ. Dermatitis caused by physical irritants. Br J Dermatol. 2002 Aug;147(2):270-5.
Reiter R, Munzert K. Values of UV- and global radiation in the Northern Alps. Archives of Meterology Geophysics and Bioclimotology. 1982;30:239–246.
Roure R, Lanctin M, Nollent V et al. Methods to assess the protective efficacy of emollients against climatic and chemical aggressors. Dermatol Res Pract 2012; 2012: 864734.
Rycroft RJ. Low humidity and microtrauma. Am J Ind Med 1985; 8:371–3.
Sliney DH, Wengraitis S. Is a differentiated advice by season and region necessary? Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 2006 Sep;92(1):150–160.
Snowise M, Dexter WW. Cold, Wind, and Sun Exposure: Managing-and Preventing-Skin Damage. Phys Sportsmed. 2004 Dec;32(12):26-32.
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: 266–272.
Warner RR, Myers MC, Taylor DA. Electron probe analysis of human skin: determination of the water concentration profile. J Invest Dermatol 1988; 90: 218–24.
Dr. Natasha Ryz is a scientist, skin care expert and an entrepreneur. She is the founder of Dry Skin Love Skincare, and she creates skincare products for beauty, dry skin and pain relief.
Dr. Ryz has a PhD in Experimental Medicine from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and she is a Vanier scholar. She also holds a Master of Science degree and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Natasha is the former Chief Science Officer of Zenabis Global, and she oversaw cannabis extraction, analytics, and product development. Her team brought 20 products to market including oils, sprays, vapes and softgels.