From simple dry, cracked skin to eczema, psoriasis, and seborrhoeic dermatitis, the cold, wind and low humidity of winter can worsen just about every kind of skin condition.
“A vicious circle develops”, says Dr Ella L Toombs, a dermatologist.
The dry air of winter and the hot air of central heating pulls moisture from the skin, which then tends to peel, crack and shed excessively, Toombs says. This increased loss of skin cells results in increased oil and water loss. This leads to more dry skin.
Toombs says a warm tropical climate can smooth the skin without any moisturiser, “That's because the humidity in the atmosphere keeps the naturally produced oils on the skin and the superficial cells soft and adherent so that oils are not lost”.
For people who have an existing “skin condition, such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea or dandruff, winter weather can make a bad problem worse”, says another dermatologist, Dr Bruce Katz. “However, many of the winter protection strategies we suggest to patients who have skin conditions also apply to everyone else”.
Treating skin conditions
Eczema is an overall skin sensitivity that appears as a rash, says Katz. People with eczema should not wear wool or heavy synthetic fabrics directly on their skin. These can cause irritation from too much friction.
“Cover up and avoid wind and cold”, says Katz, “Wear a cotton layer against your skin to protect against friction”.
In psoriasis, skin cells reproduce at a faster than normal rate, forming scaly patching or plaque, says Dr Thomas Russell, a clinical professor of dermatology. “It's harder for skin to retain moisture because there's less humidity in the air during winter, so tiny cracks can develop on the skin. To help keep skin moist, use a moisturiser, and watch how many times you bathe”.
We take too many showers at too hot a temperature in the winter months, adds Russell. “Most people, especially elderly people, should bathe once a week in winter. You can wash where you need to for personal hygiene at a sink”.
Toombs agrees. “Use soap only in areas where you perspire”, she says. “When you shower, use warm, not hot, water, and do not use a washcloth because it may be too abrasive”.
Russell also points out that people who have psoriasis need to be especially cautious about contracting a streptococcal throat infection (a severe form of throat infection caused by bacteria), which usually strikes in winter months.
“A streptococcal infection will cause psoriasis to flare badly”, he says. “If you hear about a streptococcal outbreak in your child's school or in some other group setting, it is wise to pay attention for any symptoms of infection and see your doctor if you feel you might be getting it”.
Seborrhoeic dermatitis, or severe dandruff, can worsen significantly in cold, dry weather.
“With seborrhoea, it's like walking on a tightrope in the winter”, says Russell. “You don't want to dry the skin with frequent shampooing, but you also need to apply medications, some of which come as shampoo”.
Russell says that when seborrhoeic dermatitis or any other condition worsens in winter, it's usually time to seek medical advice.