How to prevent and treat dry skin in winter

30th September, 2020 • 5 min read

Dry skin (xerosis) is a common skin condition that often gets worse in winter — when temperatures are low, the air is dry and we spend a lot of time indoors with the heating on.

More exposure to cold and dry air reduces the moisture in your skin, leaving it dry or flaky, cracked, itchy or sore.

You can treat many cases of

dry skin
at home. But there are times when it can be a symptom of a skin condition like
or atopic eczema, which may need to be treated by a doctor.

So it’s important to know what causes dry skin, how to look after it, and when to see a doctor,

What causes dry skin and why is it more common in winter?

Dry skin normally develops when the top layer of your skin (the epidermis) has less moisture.

In winter, this might be because you’ve exposed your skin to a lot of cool, dry air or because you’ve spent too long in front of a direct heat source like a fan heater or an open fire.

You can also dry out your skin by:

  • taking too many baths or showers
  • using harsh soaps on your skin
  • wearing rough clothing that rubs on your skin
  • spending a lot of time indoors with the central heating on
  • regular exposure to low humidity

Dry skin can be itchy, painful or irritating, and severe dry skin can crack and bleed. However there are things you can do to ease the condition at home.

How to treat dry skin at home

If you have dry skin, you may find that it helps to make the following changes to your routine.

Keep baths and showers short

The American Association of Dermatologists (AAD) recommends limiting the amount of time you spend in the shower — 5 to 10 minutes should be fine, but anything longer may start to dry out your skin.

It also says it’s best to shower in warm or lukewarm water. This is because bathing in hot water can make your skin feel more dry and itchy.

Hot water can also strip away some of your skin’s natural oils. These oils normally help to trap moisture against your skin and removing them can make your skin dry.

Apply moisturiser as soon as you get out of the bath or shower

Moisturising lotions and creams may help to soothe dry skin or prevent it from developing in the first place. They also form a protective barrier that can stop moisture from evaporating away from your skin.

It’s generally best to apply these products as soon as you get out of the bath or shower while your skin is still damp, so there’s plenty of moisture to trap against your skin. You can also apply them again before bed.

If the skin on your hands is very dry, experts say you should try to moisturise them every time you finish washing your hands.

Ointments and creams tend to be better than lotions and experts say you should look for products that contain hydrating ingredients like:

  • olive oil
  • jojoba oil
  • shea butter
  • petroleum jelly
  • mineral oil
  • glycerin

Use gentle skincare products

Everyday soaps may be too harsh for dry skin. These products often strip away your skin’s protective oils, which can make it dry out faster.

Harsh soaps can also be irritating, so you may want to consider switching them for something that was developed for sensitive skin.

Look for products that say ‘gentle’ or ‘unscented’ on the label and try your best to avoid things containing alcohol or fragrance chemicals. All of these ingredients can dry out your skin.

Run a humidifier

Humidifiers are devices designed to increase the amount of moisture in the air. Organisations like the American Skin Association (ASA) say they can be helpful in the treatment or prevention of dry skin.

If you can’t find a humidifier, you can also try putting a wet towel on a radiator. As the radiator heats up, the water will evaporate into the air — increasing the humidity and preventing dryness.

Wear soft, breathable fabrics

Rough or coarse clothing can irritate dry or delicate skin, so try to wear soft fabrics whenever you can.

The American Association of Dermatology recommends natural fabrics like cotton, but they say you can still wear wool or other rough materials as long as you wear something soft underneath them.

When to see a doctor about dry skin

If you make these changes, you may be able to prevent dry skin or manage any dry skin you already have.

If dry skin persists or develops despite making these changes it may be worth seeing a doctor about your condition.

If your skin breaks, there’s a chance bacteria or other germs could get into the wound, causing a skin infection. See a doctor if you think you may have a skin infection.

Long-term or chronic dry skin could also be a sign of a more serious skin condition, like

atopic eczema
. These skin conditions may need to be treated with topical steroids to reduce swelling and fight inflammation, so it’s important to see a doctor if you think you might have them.

Key points

  • dry skin is a common winter problem that can be triggered by exposure to dry air, wind and indoor heating
  • taking shorter baths and moisturising your skin can help to reduce dryness
  • it may also help to run a humidifier in your house, and wear soft or breathable fabrics
  • some moisturising ointments and creams can help with dry skin
  • if your symptoms don’t clear up after making changes to your lifestyle, it’s best to see a doctor

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.