A doctor answers 5 questions about dry skin

In the winter months, I wash my hands regularly and use a squirt of hand sanitizer from time to time in an effort to ward off colds. It may be a good health habit, but it also pretty much guarantees that I’m plagued by dry, cracked skin and tiny cuts around my fingers until spring.

Dry skin in the winter months is common, partly because people ramp up their hand washing, but the combination of cold air and the lack of humidity also plays a role. Your skin spends the winter months fighting to retain moisture, not to mention fending off other insults from cold-weather staples like scratchy wool clothes and crackling wood fires.

How can your skin survive the season? We asked Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, senior lecturer on dermatology at Harvard Medical School, to weigh in with her best tips to help you protect your skin from winter dryness.

1.  What’s the most common winter skin problem?

For most people, it’s dry skin and itching, says Dr. Gilchrest. You can blame cold air and low humidity for stripping the water away from the surface of your skin. Instead of lying flat and smooth and then shedding from the surface inconspicuously, dead skin cells from the many layers that make up our protective skin barrier form small but visible partially attached clumps that make your skin feel dry and rough.

Eczema craquelé is another problem to watch for in the winter months. It’s essentially an extreme manifestation of dry skin, usually occurring on the lower legs. With this condition, the dryness actually causes cracks in the top layer of skin, known as the stratum corneum. Blood may rise up beneath the skin, appearing as squiggly red lines, which give the skin a mottled appearance. Some people with this condition experience itching and stinging.

2.  How can you prevent dry skin in the winter months?

Combating the problem starts with keeping your home environment moist. Use a humidifier if you can. But the most effective strategy is to use skin moisturizers, which slow water loss and also physically smooth the skin, making it feel less rough, says Dr. Gilchrest.

3.  Do you have any tips for choosing a moisturizer?

Choose the heaviest moisturizer that’s comfortable to wear, and use more on your lower legs and hands, which are most prone to dryness. After a bath or a shower, pat the skin dry and immediately apply a moisturizer. Reapply as needed throughout the day, says Dr. Gilchrest.

4.  Do expensive, brand-name moisturizers work better than lower-cost options?

“It doesn’t have to be expensive to work,” says Dr. Gilchrest. “To my knowledge, while there are some extremely expensive moisturizers, there are none that are proven to be magically better.” But if you can, she says, look for moisturizers with alpha hydroxy acids, also called fruit acids, such as lactic acid or glycolic acid. Creams with alpha hydroxy acids tend to hold moisture in the skin longer than other moisturizers. You can get them at fairly high concentrations, she says. Use small amounts until your skin gets used to them, so you can apply them and they don’t sting.

5.  Any other winter tips you can offer?

Keeping the outer skin barrier well hydrated is crucial. Also keep your skin covered in cold temperatures, and don’t forget to wear gloves when you’re out, says Dr. Gilchrest. For people with Raynaud’s syndrome, where blood vessels in the fingers overreact to cold temperatures, gloves help prevent fingers from becoming painful and turning white, which happens more often in the winter. Keeping the hands warm can also ensure healthy nail growth during the colder months, she says.

In addition, as cozy as it may be, it’s best to avoid sitting next to a fire or a radiator all day, because that type of direct heat can be damaging to your skin. Avoid super-hot baths for the same reason, says Dr. Gilchrest. Whenever possible, try to wear soft fabrics. Wool is warm, but it can scratch and irritate the skin. If you do wear wool when you go outside, be certain to remove it as soon as possible when you go back inside, or layer it over softer fabrics.

With a little extra care, you’ll be able to protect your skin from the effects of winter’s chill.

Related Information: Skin Care and Repair


  1. Dr. Maria Patricia Rivas Bondavalli, MD

    An informative article to maintain your skin health in a natural way as it covers all the precautions to heal your skin. Thank you for providing such a nice information.

  2. Tesoro Rosen

    Drink lots of water, eat fish and fish oil, nuts, avocadoes, olive oil, also put olive oil on chapped lips.
    That is how I help my skin in COLD COLD Canada.

  3. Susan Kim

    we need a doctor to tell us this? any women’s magazine for the last 10 years has said this. nothing new, just very obvious stuff that is everywhere.

    • alexis

      i agree Kim. Harvard Health has published many good monographs about a number of ailments and suggested care. However most of them really did not require a MD, PhD and the signature of Harvard to gather the information and publish. If Harvard really cared about the community’s health, they would make these various publications at a more affordable cost —- NOT $20 a shot.

  4. judith scott

    A friend in her 90’s has suggested adding baby oil to tub baths, and I combine it with my favourite Dr. Teal’s lavender and epsom salts bubble bath. I seems to work really well!

  5. Norman Holly

    Gloves alone will not prevent or cure Raynaud’s Syndrome. There may be some underlying cause, such as underperforming thyroid or insufficient vitamin B-12.

  6. M ary

    Can you tell me what causes eczema and how to treat it without steroids? M

    • C allie


      I have had really good luck in treating mine with Goats Lavender Soap. You can normally find at local health food store.

      Best of luck

  7. Panda Customer Service

    Dry skin, one of the most common problems that people face during the winter season.
    Its really been a very good article for the people that face the same problem as article shares some important points regarding the same.
    Thanks for sharing such an important article with us.

  8. Jose

    Our experience has been to use an oil based emulsion cream which proved suitable for small babies ( as young as 3 months ).
    A thin layer to be applied and you right Kelly the emulsified cream holds moisture longer.
    When the instructions are whenever needed, the user uses the not more than 3-4 times at best.
    Thanks you Kelly for the opportunity to comment.

  9. sekhar u

    Thanks a lot Kelly for sharing this info to us.

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