Winter Dry Skin - What is it?

Posted by Dr. Natasha Ryz on

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

During the winter, temperatures get colder, the humidity drops, and wind damage can all worsen dry skin.

Winter dry skin is common in Canada and cold climates.

This article will discuss:

    • What is dry skin?
    • What is very dry skin?
    • What is the skin barrier?
    • What is the moisture barrier?
    • What is the lipid barrier?
    • What is winter dry skin?
    • Winter dry skin is dehydrated
    • Winter dry skin has less lipids
      • Summary
      • References

    Winter Dry Skin

    What is 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 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.

    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.

      The following contribute to dry skin:

      • lack of water in skin
      • lack of water-holding substances called humectants (glycerin, hyaluronic acid, natural moisturizing factors)
      • lack of epidermal lipids (ceramides, fatty acids, cholesterol)
      • lack of sebum (triglycerides, wax esters, squalene)

      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.

      Anyone can develop dry skin.

      Read more: What is Dry Skin?

      Dry skin is often relieved with the use of moisturizers, a good face oil, and some lifestyle modifications, such as using a humidifier, avoiding harsh cleansers, and supplementing the diet with essential fatty acids. 

      Winter Dry Skin

      What is very dry skin?

      Very dry skin is a more severe type of dry skin, and is characterized by skin barrier damage, microbe imbalances and inflammation, leading to red, irritated, itchy skin.

      Very dry skin symptoms include:

      • skin feels tight and dehydrated, especially after showering, bathing or swimming
      • skin appears dull, rough and blotchy
      • slight to severe flaking, scaling or peeling
      • fine lines and wrinkles are more pronounced
      • irritation and itching (pruritus)
      • inflammation and redness
      • deep cracks on hands and feet that may bleed
      • associated with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis

      Very dry skin usually has underlying genetic components as well as environmental factors that play a role.

      Very dry skin does not typically respond to just moisturizers.

      Nutrient-rich oils, balms and barrier creams are required to improve very dry skin and protect against further damage.

      Active ingredients, including vitamins, humectants, ceramides, fatty acids and cholesterol can help repair the skin barrier, calm redness, and sooth irritation and itch.

      Some people with very dry skin may also require medications to control symptoms, including antimicrobial agents, antihistamines, anti-inflammatory agents, immunotherapy, biologicals, phototherapy, and others.

      Read more: What is Very Dry Skin?

      Winter Dry Skin

      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 the moisture barrier?

        The skin moisture barrier is a part of your skin barrier. 

        The skin moisture barrier ensures your skin is hydrated by trapping and holding water into your skin.

        The skin moisture barrier is composed of water, natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and other humectants, such as glycerol and hyaluronic acid to attract and hold onto moisture.

        Normal skin hydration

        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).

        The retention of water in the skin is dependent on:

        1. Natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and other humectants (such as glycerol and hyaluronic acid) to attract and hold onto moisture
        2. Intercellular lipids (fats) that form a barrier to prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL) (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007).

        Winter Dry Skin

        Water and skin cell turnover

        Desquamation is the natural process of shedding skin cells.

        New skin cells are formed at the base layer of the skin, and they differentiate and migrate towards the skin surface, in a process that takes approximately 4 weeks. Nearly a billion cells are lost each day from the surface of adult skin (Milstone et al, 2004). 

        One of the critical functions of water in the skin is to participate in hydrolytic enzymatic processes required for normal desquamation. 

        In other words - water is necessary for the enzymes to function properly. 

        If the skin water content falls below a critical level, the enzymatic function required for normal desquamation is impaired, leading to skin cells sticking and building up on the skin surface (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007). 

        These changes lead to the visible appearance of dryness, roughness, scaling, and flaking (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007).

        Learn more: What is Dehydrated Skin?

          Dry Aging Skin - What is it?

          What is the lipid barrier?

          The lipid barrier is a part of the skin barrier. 

          There are many beneficial fats and lipids that are naturally found in the lipid barrier and 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 include:

          • Ceramides
          • Free Fatty Acids
          • Cholesterol

          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 made of:

          • Triglycerides
          • Wax esters
          • Squalene

          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.

            Learn more: Lipid Barrier - Beneficial Fats in The Skin Barrier

            Winter Dry Skin

            What is winter dry skin?

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

            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?

            Symptoms of winter dry skin depend on the severity of damage to the skin barrier.

            For instance, mildly dry skin, or dehydrated skin is due to a lack of water and water-holding substances (humectants) in the moisture barrier.

            Dry skin is due to a lack of water, humectants and lipids/fats in the skin barrier.

            Very dry skin is similar to dry skin, but also suffers from redness and inflammation.

            Winter dry skin symptoms can range from dehydrated skin to dry skin to very dry skin:

            Dry Skin Guide. Dehydrated Skin vs. Dry Skin vs. Very Dry Skin. Dry Skin Love Skincare.

            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).


             Winter Dry Skin

            Winter dry skin is dehydrated

            Dry winter skin has a lack of water.

            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).

            Studies have shown a drop in transepidermal water loss (TEWL) (a measure of the integrity of the skin's barrier function) with low humidity, as well as 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). 

            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

            Winter dry skin has less lipids

            Lower lipid levels in the stratum corneum have been reported in winter dry skin (Akimoto et al, 1993; Rawlings et al, 1994; Rogers et al, 1996).

            In a study with healthy women, aged 21-60 years, there was a pronounced seasonal decline in all the lipid levels from summer to spring and winter (Rogers et al, 1996).

            There was a 20% decrease in ceramide 1 linoleate levels in leg samples in winter compared with summer (Rogers et al, 1996).

            The reduction in lipid levels may in turn reduce the water content of the stratum corneum. This may influence the activity of the stratum corneum enzymes involved in desquamation and will interfere with the generation of natural moisturizing factors, leaving the skin prone to dryness (Rogers et al, 1996).

              Winter Dry Skin


              Winter weather is harsh on your 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.

              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.

              Winter dry skin is common in Canada and cold climates.

              It is important to protect your skin against winter weather.


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              Author Information

              Dr. Natasha Ryz, Scientist and Founder of Dry Skin Love Skincare

              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.

              Why I Started A Skincare Company

              Twitter: @tashryz
              Instagram: @tash.ryz
              LinkedIn: @natasharyz

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