How to Tame Winter Skin

Winter skin can feel overwhelming but it's not untamable. It just takes some extra knowledge, strategy and discipline to carry out your plan. Add some patience too!

The basics: Dry, winter air and its co-conspirator, dry, indoor heating, cause moisture in your skin to evaporate. This harms your skin's outer layer, also called the stratum corneum. When healthy, the stratum corneum acts like a gate that opens and shuts at the command of your perfectly orchestrated biology. It shields the skin from damaging UVA/UVB light, absorbs moisture and seals it in, keeps out pathogens and regulates immune responses. The acid mantle, a thin film on the stratum corneum, helps maintain skin pH.

This epidermal barrier is a network of skin cells "glued" together by lipids, proteins, peptides, amino acids and other Natural Moisturizing Factors (NMF). When it is destabilized, winter skin symptoms arise. This stresses your immune system, which may already be dealing with breaches to the protective layer. Hence, the cascade of winter skin woes begins.

Wrinkles and roughness are inescapable. Skin is also vulnerable to rosacea, eczema and psoriasis. Acne-prone skin may overreact to the dryness and crank up sebum production. The result: a flareup in the middle of winter. If you have oral herpes, cold weather may trigger outbreaks. Suppression medications and early treatment of outbreaks may mean the difference between a red bump and a full-scale eruption.

Dry, Rough Skin... What Fixes It?

Begin with a gentle cleanser with natural moisturizers, then use a "coordinating" toner. In other words, be careful not to mix ingredients that don't work well together. A surefire way to avoid those mishaps is to buy multiple products within a skincare line instead of a potluck approach.

Toners help keep the skin pH where it needs to be to preserve the integrity of the acid mantle and skin barrier. Cleansing and toning set the stage for healing. 

If you need some exfoliation, do that before you use the toner. If you have a serum, apply it after your toner. If not, jump to moisturizing. 

See Related: What Skin Toner Does And Why You Should Care

Quench that Skin!

There are three categories of moisturizers. They each have a different roll that mimics how moisture functions in the skin. 

  • Occlusives are fatty substances that prevent harmful substances from reaching into the skin's deeper layers. They also trap and seal in moisture. Mineral oil, petroleum jelly, zinc, coconut oil and gamma-linoleic (omega-6) fatty acid and alpha-linolenic (omega-3) acid (found in hemp seed oil) are occlusives. The body makes some occlusives such as ceramides and palmitoylethanolamide by breaking down carbohydrates into fat.
  • Emollients also have occlusive properties but it is not their key function. Emollients mainly fill cracks and build up thin areas of the skin for a smooth and soft touch. Apricot kernel oil, oat amino acids, shea butter, avocado oil, and hemp seed oil are plant-based emollients. NMF emollients are lipid rich and include squalene and sebum.
  • Humectants draw water from within the skin and the atmosphere and bind it to multiple layers of the skin. Aloe vera juice and allantoin are plant-based humectants and honey is animal based. Examples of NMFs are hyaluronic acid, glycerol, ureas, allantoin and pyrrolidone carboxylic acid (PCA). 
Obagi Hydrate Obagi Elastiderm

Tretinoin and Retinols for Winter Skin Protection

Prescription tretinoin and over-the-counter retinols are cold weather staples for just about any skin type. During the winter, these vitamin A derivatives are especially helpful because they ramp up the life cycle of keratinocytes. Normal skin renews every 28 days, but winds down as we age. Unfavorable environments—unbalanced skin pH, oily or overly dry skin—can produce subpar skin cells that die prematurely. Think of burgeoning keratinocytes as seeds that need support to make it to their final destination on the surface of your skin. 

Using tretinoin can double your skin's refortification process. The growth, development and migration of keratinocytes to the skin's outer layer is a productive journey. Along the way, keratinocytes deposit keratin which strengthens each layer of the skin and joins the extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM is essentially your entire body minus cells. It forms your physical, molecular and chemical body composition. 

As keratinocytes push their way to the skin's surface, they can dislodge bacteria and dead skin cells from hair follicles. This helps prevent and clear up acne. Keratinocytes also regulate skin's immune responses.1 With a healthy balance of keratinocytes, your skin is better equipped to quell inflammation and itching.  

Keratin belongs to a subset of proteins called scleroproteins. Other scleroproteins include elastin and collagen. They give skin dimension, strength, thickness, shape, texture and resiliency.

Obagi Tretinoin and Retinol

Why Exfoliation Matters

When your skin is dry, exfoliating can sound like a risky endeavor but moisture-deprived skin is nirvana for harmful bacteria and other pathogens. Mix in dead skin cells and erratic sebum production and you have a recipe for scaly skin and pimples, blackheads, white heads—the works.

Skincare products that increase skin cell turnover need assistance sloughing off dead skin cells. That's where exfoliation steps in. It's the pull to tretinoin's push.

Pair your skin-renewing cream with chemical exfoliators like hydroxy acids. They work by breaking down cellular bonds that keep dead skin cells connected to the ECM.

Certain skin conditions call for year-round exfoliation. Keratosis pilaris, also known as chicken skin, is one of them. It's easy to drop off on upkeep when your face is losing moisture nearly as fast as you add it. If left alone, KP will likely worsen. Dry skin is a main trigger.

KP is caused by keratin that builds up and clogs hair follicles. Its calling card is inflamed bumps that form on the back of arms, thighs and sides of the face. They are small and tend to develop in bunches. Keratosis pilaris is easily mistaken for dry skin but moisturizing won't resolve it. Exfoliation is the first step toward relief.

Obagi's KeraPhine lotion is clinically proven to do the job! With two powerful AHAs, Obagi's KeraPhine can smooth out KP or any skin that is rough. It's like giving your arms and legs a peel.

Winter Skincare Habits

It's hard to think of summertime heat in the dead of winter but you should. The outer layer of the skin, your primary protection from UVA and UVB rays, is already at a disadvantage. Plus the earth is closer to the sun during winter in the northern hemisphere. You really can't skip sun protection. Your skin isn't just at risk while outside either. Short-wave blue light emitted from digital devices such as computer and TV screens, mobile phones and fluorescent and LED bulbs is cumulative and causes photo-aging. Follow these tips to get in the habit of using sunscreen in the winter:

  • Take sunscreen with you when you leave the house.
  • Use it as a positive reminder that warmer days are ahead.
  • Choose a tinted sunscreen that's also moisture rich.
  • The tint can also help blur redness and irritation.
  • Sunblocks and screens that include vitamin C, antioxidants and ceramides can help restore your skin's natural barrier. 
Obagi Sun Shield Warm Tint SPF50 Obagi Sun Shield Cool Tint SPF50

Heal and Protect with Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerbroker in the skincare world. Like retinoids, it stimulates skin renewal but it also has some moves of its own. Vitamin C and A have just the right amount of similarities and differences to create a powerful synergistic effect.  

Retinoids get A+s for anti-aging, fighting acne, lightening hyperpigmentation and reducing the appearance of scars.

The commonly understood benefits of vitamin C are neutralization of damaging free radicals, brightening skin, and promoting skin cell regeneration. All definitely necessary. But vitamin C's modulation of the skin's immune system and proliferation of ceramide2 are its crowning achievements—at least in the winter. Ceramides are lipid NMFs. They're most abundant on the stratum corneum.

See Related: Skin Care Power Trio: Tretinoin, Vitamin C And Hydroquinone


1. Eckert RL, Rorke EA. Molecular biology of keratinocyte differentiation. Environ Health Perspect. 1989;80:109-116. doi:10.1289/ehp.8980109

2. Kim KP, Shin KO, Park K, et al. Vitamin C Stimulates Epidermal Ceramide Production by Regulating Its Metabolic Enzymes. Biomol Ther (Seoul). 2015;23(6):525-530. doi:10.4062/biomolther.2015.044

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