Family health

How to take care of dry winter skin

After months of cold winter weather, your whole family can start to experience dry, itchy skin. Read on for a head-to-toe guide to getting some relief.

By Karen Robock
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

Dry indoor air coupled with sub-zero temperatures outside can leave us all with more than just rosy cheeks. “In the wintertime it’s very common for kids and adults to experience dry skin,” says Lori Shapiro, a dermatologist in Toronto. For some it’s a mild tightness and the odd rough patch, but for others severely chapped hands, cracked heels and itchy legs are common, she says. Soothe everyone’s parched complexions with these easy skin-saving strategies.

Face To keep your complexion smooth and hydrated, start your skin-care routine with a gentle cleanser that won’t irritate delicate skin. Ones that say they’re for “sensitive” or “dry” skin are safe bets, but severely dry skin may also benefit from a rich cream cleanser. “If your skin is very chapped you can cut back to using a cleanser only at nighttime, when you’re removing makeup, and rinse with just tepid water in the morning,” says Winnipeg dermatologist Victoria Taraska.If you have flaking on your chin, cheeks or nose you may be tempted to use an exfoliator more often, but this can further irritate dry skin. Instead, slough off the rough spots just once or twice a week using a gentle polishing product. Tip: You can use it on your lips at the same time to buff away chapped spots.

Next, apply a rich moisturizer morning and night. Even if you don’t like the texture of a heavy cream it’s best to upgrade to a slightly richer formulation for the winter months. (If you have oily skin you may only need to spot-moisturize – focusing on the areas that feel tight or look dry.) When shopping for a new facial moisturizer, keep an eye out for these key ingredients: Glycerin and oatmeal are humectants, meaning they attract water to the skin; silicone is an occlusive that creates a protective barrier to keep moisture from escaping; and shea butter is an emollient that helps to replenish skin’s natural lipid barrier.

Kids with dry skin will also need a daily moisturizer on their face, neck and chest. “If your daughter doesn’t like the idea, try applying it to her hands and cheeks as she’s falling asleep at night,” says Taraska.

Body “Kids won’t necessarily complain about dry skin like adults will, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bothering them,” says Shapiro. You might notice kids scratching or see evidence of flaky – or in more severe cases, cracked and raw-looking – skin on their arms and legs.

Shins are a common place for adults to experience dryness too, due to the thinner layer of skin in this area. To keep everyone comfortable, cut bath and shower times down to no more than 10 minutes, and keep water temperatures in the tepid-to-warm range to avoid irritating already-inflamed skin. “If you love a long, hot shower, save it as a treat for the weekend,” suggests Shapiro. For kids, limit the suds to hair, armpits and genitals, and use a gentle all-over cleanser on alternating bath times. Pat – don’t rub – bodies dry, then apply a body lotion while the skin is still damp to seal in moisture. Tip: Work the moisturizer in as you give kids a bedtime massage. This will help them relax and ensure the product absorbs into their skin, instead of just rubbing off on their pyjamas.


Hands & feet Bedtime is a perfect opportunity to moisturize your feet. Before you tuck in, cover each foot in a thick layer of cream or petroleum jelly, then slip on a soft pair of socks. The product will have a chance to soak in while you sleep, softening rough soles and cracked heels without ruining your sheets. Protect dry hands by wearing gloves when you use household cleaning products or wash dishes, and by using a lotion throughout the day as needed. “It’s helpful to keep a tube on your desk at work or in your purse so it’s always handy,” says Taraska.

Drooling babies and toddlers can get extra-dry hands and cheeks because the constant wetness actually draws moisture out of the skin. Covering affected areas in a moisturizing balm will create a protective layer to seal in moisture and soothe inflamed patches.

Sunscreen in the winter? We still need to protect skin from sun damage during the winter months. “Incidental exposure from sitting at a desk next to a window, in addition to small bouts of time spent outdoors, can still add up to long-term damage,” says dermatologist Victoria Taraska. The risk of UV exposure is even more pronounced in snowy conditions due to rays bouncing off reflective, icy surfaces. Mom should be using a daily moisturizer containing a minimum of SPF 30 and kids should have exposed skin on hands and faces covered with sunblock or a body lotion containing SPF 30 when they’re playing outside.

What is eczema? As many as one in four Canadian kids experience some degree of atopic dermatitis, better known as eczema, an immune reaction that results in red and bumpy patches of skin on the face and body that can be extremely itchy. (Up to 15 percent of people continue to experience outbreaks as adults.) The combination of hot indoor air and cold temperatures outdoors can exacerbate the condition, making flare-ups common in the wintertime.

For school-age kids with severe eczema, the suffering can go beyond a few flakes: “There can be psychological effects,” says Toronto dermatologist Lori Shapiro. For serious cases of eczema (marked by a red rash with crusted or open lesions) your family doctor, paediatrician or dermatologist may recommend an oral antihistamine combined with a prescription lotion to soothe the inflamed areas. And, if there are open sores, an antibiotic may also be prescribed to reduce the risk of infection.


Need more skin care advice? Check out our 4 must-try dry skin soothers. And try a humidifier to relieve dry skin and congestion during cold and flu season! See our top picks here. Plus, try treating your tot to an oatmeal bath to relieve dry, irritated skin.

This article was originally published on Feb 15, 2012

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