Winter Dry Skin - What Causes It?

Posted by Dr. Natasha Ryz on

'Winter dry skin' is dry skin that develops during the cold winter season.

Winter dry skin can be caused by cold temperatures, low humidity, harsh winds and sun exposure.

Winter 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.

This article will discuss:

    • What is winter dry skin?
    • What is the skin barrier?
    • Effects of cold weather on skin
    • What causes winter dry skin?
    • Cold temperature causes winter dry skin
    • Low humidity causes winter dry skin
    • Wind exposure causes winter dry skin
    • Sun exposure causes winter dry skin
    • Summary
    • References 

Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

What is winter dry skin?

'Winter dry skin' is dry skin that develops during the cold winter season.

Winter 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.

Winter dry skin 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.

Winter dry skin can have a wide spectrum of symptoms - from mild dryness and flaking to severe itching, redness and pain.

Winter dry skin symptoms are painful and frustrating, and often associated with skin conditions such as eczema or atopic dermatitis. 

Learn more: What is Dry Skin Pain?

Exposure to winter weather can weaken your skin barrier and its protective functions.

Winter dry skin has been reported to involve scaling, defects in water holding and barrier functions, and decreased lipid levels in the stratum corneum (Ishikawa et al, 2013).

Learn more: Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

What is the skin barrier?

Your skin barrier includes the outermost layers of skin, called the stratum corneum.

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.

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.

Learn More: What is The Skin Barrier

Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

Effects of cold weather on skin

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.

What causes winter dry skin?

It is broadly accepted that skin barrier functions may be negatively affected by winter conditions (reviewed by Engebretsen et al, 2016), including:

  1. cold temperature
  2. low humidity
  3. wind exposure
  4. sun exposure 

Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

1. Cold temperatures cause winter 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).

Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

2. Low humidity causes winter 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).

Winter Dry Skin

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):

  1. it maintains plasticity of the skin, protecting it from damage
  2. it contributes to optimum stratum corneum barrier function
  3. 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?

    Dehydrated skin is at risk of damage

    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).

    Winter Dry Skin

    3. Strong wind causes winter dry skin

    Strong cold winds can also strip moisture from exposed skin and disrupt the skin barrier. 

    In a study with healthy woman, 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).

    Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

    4. Sun exposure causes winter 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 dry skin, 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 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).

    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.  

    Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

    Summary

    'Winter dry skin' is dry skin that develops during the cold winter season.

    Winter dry skin is caused by cold temperatures, low humidity, harsh winds and sun exposure.

    Cold to freezing temperatures can damage your skin barrier. 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.

    Dry winter 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.

     

    Do you want healthy skin?

    Sign up for Dry Skin Love Newsletter below

    What Happens to Your Skin as You Age?

    References

    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.

    Eero Lehmuskallio, Juhani Hassi & Päivi Kettunen (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.

    Ishikawa J, Yoshida H, Ito S, Naoe A, Fujimura T, Kitahara T, Takema Y, Zerweck C, Grove GL. 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. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2013 Mar;12(1):3-11.

    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.

    Verdier-Sévrain et al. (2007). Skin hydration: a review on its molecular mechanisms. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 6, 75–82.

    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. determination of the water concentration profile. J Invest Dermatol 1988; 90: 218–24.

     

     

    Cold Weather Dry Skin Winter

    ← Older Post Newer Post →



    Leave a comment