Windburn or Super-Dry Skin? How to Tell the Difference Between the Winter Issues

Photo: Stocksy/Andrey Pavlov
Once cold temps come barreling in full-force, the skin issues that wreaked havoc on your complexion during the warmer months instantly start to feel like a distant, NBD memory. Of course the sunburns of summer are no joke, but the painful cracked, red skin that comes about in the relentlessly frigid winter is seriously painful, too. When it comes restoring your skin though, you've gotta know the problem you're troubleshooting. And in this case, that much is easier said than done because it's tough to differentiate between two very common seasonal issues: windburn and super-dry skin.

Both situations can look and feel very similar: dry, red, and all sorts of irritated. A great clue as to what you're dealing with though? Think about what you were doing before your skin started acting up. "Windburns are the result of cold temperatures as well as low humidity in the air. The combination depletes the natural oils in the skin, making it vulnerable to dryness and redness," New York City-based dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, tells me. "Dry skin, on the other hand, can also be red, tight, and irritated, but it's not always due to environmental factors. It could be from lack of a moisturizer, washing with hot water, over-exfoliation, rosacea, eczema, and other issues."

"Windburns are the result of cold temperatures as well as low humidity in the air…. Dry skin can also be red, tight, and irritated, but it's not always due to environmental factors." — dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD

So if you suddenly experience that redness and dryness right after being outdoors, signs point to windburn, which occurs when your skin contacts those cold temps (and wind, obviously!) without the right protection. Luckily, there's a proper healing protocol for both issues.

How to treat windburn

According to Dr. Engelman, windburned skin doesn't function optimally because "the barrier function of the skin is compromised, leaving it sensitive and unbalanced." The fix is to give your skin what those harsh environmental factors took away. "Wear a thicker balm, like Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream, and choose formulations that are balm-like or have moisturizing properties," Dr. Engelman says. "Consistent applying will keep your skin continually protected, keep moisture locked in, and provide a barrier for environmental aggressors."

The key in getting your skin back to normal is being diligent about slathering on those balms, reapplying them often, and making sure to show extra care to any part of your body that's exposed to the cold, she says. "The face and hands can be easily susceptible to dryness because they aren’t usually covered, unlike the rest of your body," Dr. Engelman says. And if your products aren't healing your skin, you might need to take things up a notch. "In extreme situations, a prescription anti-inflammatory medication may be required to help treat the chapping."

How to treat super-dry skin

When your skin becomes dry, it begins to underproduce sebum, which lets moisture leak out of the skin, Dr. Engelman says. That dryness can then unleash a long list of problems way worse than dealing with pesky flakes. "If the skin is too dry, it can no longer fight off bacteria, as well as the environmental stress factors we face every day. That can lead to sensitivity, uneven skin texture, breakouts, and rapid aging," she explains. Yikes much?

Just like you layer your clothes in the wintertime to stay warm, the solution to dryness is doing the same with your skin-care products. "A good rule of thumb is to start with the lightest product and finish with the thickest, allowing each layer to be fully absorbed by the skin," Dr. Engelman says. "Start with the lightest-consistency products, like toning water, followed by serums and ampoules. Next are any prescription topical treatments, lotions, creams, and then sunscreen. And always start with a clean face and apply when the skin is damp, which is more pliable than dry skin and allows your products to penetrate deeper."

If you make sure the products you're using contain hydrating ingredients—think hydrating ingredients like "hyaluronic acid, oatmeal, shea butter, and antioxidants"—and you avoid over-exfoliating, which "will expose skin, weaken skin-barrier function and in some cases trigger inflammation," Dr. Engelman says you'll give your skin the tools it needs to heal. Winter definitely isn't easy on your complexion, but since it's here, at least you and you skin are prepared for the next cold front.

Check out these moisturizing masks to soothe your dry winter skin. Or, go the homemade route with these beauty recipes to save your complexion.

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