If you’re one of the 50 million people in the U.S. with acne,1 you may feel self-conscious in this appearance-obsessed world. Sure, in the summer heat, you almost expect pimples to pop up in the layers of sweat and sunscreen. But breakouts in the dead of winter?!
It’s actually a myth that acne is worse in warm weather, says Dr. Jeffrey Zwerner, senior medical director of dermatology at Teladoc Health. “Acne tends to worsen or become more difficult to treat in the winter primarily because of excessive skin drying,” he explains.
A recent study found that the percentage of patients with moderate or severe acne was actually highest in the wintertime.2 If the most common skin problem in the U.S. is one of your biggest winter woes, then read on for some tips to maintain healthy, clear skin this time of year.
Causes and the cold
Our skin has millions of pores, which contain hair follicles and oil glands. If pores get clogged with oil or dead skin cells, pimples, whiteheads, or blackheads can appear. Sometimes, large painful lumps will develop under the skin.
“In the winter when your skin becomes dry, your body often responds by producing more sebum, an oily substance that is a key component of acne. Too much of this oil causes the skin cells to stick together and clogs pores,” Dr. Zwerner explains.
Even if you usually have a clear complexion, during the driest time of year, blemishes are common. “Winter leads to a significant drop in the amount of moisture in the air. Couple that with the dry air associated with heating systems and electric units, and you have a situation where it’s very difficult for people to maintain the proper skin moisture that’s necessary for good skin health,” Dr. Zwerner says. “This leads to inflammation and an ineffective barrier to the season’s elements.”
These elements of low temperatures and freezing winds strip the skin of its necessary moisture. Also, people tend to warm up in too-hot, too-long showers during the coldest months, further stripping the skin of its hydration. Without the much-needed barrier, bacteria can more easily invade and thrive, causing irritation.
Home care and help
Since the winter dryness causes the body to create excess oils—leading to breakouts—the key to relief is properly moisturizing the skin. Dr. Zwerner suggests targeting acne-prone areas such as the face, neck, back, and chest with a heavy moisturizer that won’t block pores (look for “non-comedogenic” on labels). It’s ideal to moisturize after showering or bathing to lock moisture into the skin.
Speaking of showering, Dr. Zwerner recommends limiting or cutting out extremely hot showers entirely because “they rob the skin of necessary oils.” Steamy suds sessions—especially combined with the lather of harsh soaps—remove the skin’s protection. Instead, bathe in lukewarm water using gentle cleansers, limiting hot showers to under five minutes.
No matter what the thermometer reads outside, exfoliation is a “cornerstone of acne treatment,” Dr. Zwerner says, especially when coupled with products containing retinol, retinoid, or salicylic acid. “Also make sure to moisturize after you use these,” he adds.
Maintaining the skin’s delicate balance is a delicate matter, especially as the seasons change and the body’s demands for hydration shift. If you’re experiencing a bout of acne this winter—or winter itch, eczema, or rosacea—one of our U.S. board-certified dermatologists can help create a treatment plan. You can upload photos of your skin for review and a physician will respond within two business days with expert medical advice. Winter acne be gone!
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