Just another reason to always wear sunscreen—even during the winter months.

By Madison Yauger
November 19, 2020
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If you've ever walked down a city street in early January or hit the slopes after a big snow, you've probably felt it: windburn. But while many people think of that red, puffy skin as an unavoidable symptom of cold weather, it's actually a bit more damaging than you might assume. Here's what you need to know about windburn and the skin damage it can cause, as the temperatures continue to drop.

What is windburn?

Windburn is a type of skin irritation. "Basically, the top layer of our skin gets damaged, and we end up with dry, red, and flaky skin," Mary L. Stevenson, MD, a dermatologic surgeon based in New York City, tells Health. It usually occurs after exposure to "low temperature, low humidity, and abrasiveness of the wind." The cold, dry air irritates the skin and causes redness through blood vessel dilation.

The harsh elements also work to strip away sebum and natural oils from the top layer of skin, Dr. Stevenson says. Windburn breaks down your protective skin barrier and leaves the sensitive second layer of skin exposed, which lowers the skin's ability to retain moisture, increases its interactions with possible irritants, and leads to dryness and inflammation.

Windburn can also happen in tandem with sunburn—though they're two different conditions, the Skin Cancer Foundation points out that wind intensifies the effect of ultraviolet (UV) rays, helping shed the outer layer of skin and leaving the inner layers exposed and susceptible to sun damage. This overlap is why "windburn can often feel like a sunburn or be intermixed with one if you are not wearing SPF in snow [which reflects UV light]," Dr. Stevenson says. "UV rays can go right through clouds and are present even in the cold winter months," Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells Health.

What are the symptoms of windburn?

Because the symptoms of windburn can often mimic the symptoms of a sunburn—and because the two can often happen together—it can be hard to identify which one you have. But overall, "if you've been outside for a prolonged period of time in very cold windy weather, and your skin is red and feels like it's burned, you most likely have windburn," Dr. Jaliman says. She and Dr. Stevenson add that others symptoms of windburn can include:

  • Blisters (in severe cases)
  • Dryness
  • Inflammation
  • Peeling
  • Redness or flushed pigmentation in the skin
  • Sensitivity to touch

Some preexisting skin conditions or previous skin treatments can also possibly put you at a higher risk for windburn. "People with psoriasis or eczema tend to have skin that gets irritated easily, [so those conditions] increase the probability of getting windburn if you are out in [cold] conditions," says Dr. Jaliman. "In-office or at-home treatments that involve acids and exfoliate the top layer of the skin also make your skin more susceptible to wind burn. These procedures include peels and dermabrasion." She recommends using sunscreen after those types of procedures to prevent UV rays from burning the skin, and using a hydrating lotion to keep the skin moisturized.

How can you treat and prevent windburn?

If you should fall victim to this winter skin affliction, treatment involves taking extra care of that now delicate and inflamed skin. Dr. Stevenson recommends using a gentle skin cleanser, lots of moisturizer, a humidifier, if possible, and not blasting hot air out of your thermostat, as that hot air can worsen the dryness of windburn. "Use thick moisturizer, and wear SPF outside," she adds, also cautioning against itchy winter fabrics that could rub and further irritate your skin.

Additionally, Dr. Jaliman suggests a pain reliever such as Tylenol to reduce inflammation and help with pain if necessary. "You can also use ingredients such as aloe, oatmeal, and cucumber, which are cooling and have antioxidant properties," she says, adding that these products shouldn't have added fragrances. As an added note, drinking water is an easy step to re-hydrate your skin.

The duration of healing depends on the severity of the windburn. Like sunburn, mild cases can take a few days, whereas more severe cases could take several weeks. If your windburn results in large areas of blisters, severe pain, or other serious symptoms, you should seek help from a doctor.

As far as prevention goes, it all comes down to protecting the surface layer of your skin. During the colder months—and especially on extremely cold days—limiting your exposure to cold dry winds by wearing long sleeves, layers, scarves, gloves, and hats is a good defense against windburn. And if you are out in cold temperatures with skin exposed, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends limiting the amount of time you spend outside, and applying a "rich, emollient sunscreen" every two hours—the more moisturized your skin, the less likely it is to become dry and damaged quickly.

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