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Dry skin around a person's mouth from winter

8 Ways to Treat Acne And Winter Dryness

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The cold weather can be rough on your skin, but should you treat it any differently when you have acne?

When the temperature dips, skin notoriously gets dry. Unless you live in a tropical climate year-round (and if you do, lucky you!), there’s very little moisture in the air this time of year. Plus, indoor heat makes things even drier. When your skin can’t get any moisture from the environment, it looks and feels dry, and gets flaky and dull. “Generally, everybody has to be more cautious of dry skin in the winter, especially with your face because the cold wind is going to cause it to be red and chapped,” says Linda Stein Gold, MD, a dermatologist in West Bloomfield, Michigan and an Acne Store advisory board member. So you may need to tweak your regular routine, and find ways to add more moisture.

So, what happens if you’re also dealing with acne during in winter? Even if your complexion tends to be on the oily side, your skin can get extremely dry during cold weather. And heavy-duty moisturizers may promote more breakouts. So, how do you handle treat acne in the winter? Here’s how to tweak your routine to both hydrate your dry skin and continue to clear your zits.

"Even if your complexion tends to be on the oily side, your skin can get extremely dry during cold weather."

1. Switch to a gentle cleanser

The goal in winter is to protect your barrier, the skin’s outermost layer, which helps skin retain moisture and also prevents irritants, allergens, and other problematic things from getting into skin. Harsh cleansers strip away essential moisture, leaving that barrier layer compromised. So, instead, try a milder cleanser (look for the words ‘mild’ or ‘gentle’ on labels) that takes off dirt and makeup, without stripping skin, says Stein Gold. Then pat skin dry.

2. Top with an oil-free moisturizer

“While skin is still slightly damp from cleansing, apply an oil-free moisturizer,” says Stein Gold. This move will help seal some moisture into the skin as the moisturizer will act as a temporary barrier, locking in hydration. Using an oil-free formula will keep it from feeling too heavy or greasy on your acne-prone skin, she says.

3. Taper down your retinoid

If you’re using a topical retinoid to treat acne, you should know that this vitamin A-derivative works by revving up cell turnover, so pores can get—and stay—clear. During winter, you may have to modify your routine a bit since retinoids can be pretty drying and irritating. “In the summer, you may be using your retinoid every night, but in winter, you may not be able to do that,” says Stein Gold. “And that’s okay.” If your skin is getting too dry, use it every other night or even as little as twice a week. It should still work to keep your acne under control, and your skin gets a break from the dryness.

4. Moisturize in the morning

Some dermatologists will tell you to apply moisturizer and then your retinoid, but not all agree with that advice, including Stein Gold. “I’m a little bit more of a purist,” she says. “I would prefer that you put your medication on by itself, and then use your moisturizer in the morning.” If you really need to moisturize dry skin at night, wait a few hours after applying your medication and then top with your face cream. “When we studied acne products in clinical trials, we never put moisturizer and acne medications on at the same time,” she says. The worry is that you might dilute the medication’s potency.

5. Tweak your benzoyl peroxide routine

Benzoyl peroxide, which kills acne-causing bacteria and quells inflammation, is another highly effective acne medication that is notoriously drying on skin. So, when winter hits, you may need to switch to a benzoyl peroxide-containing wash instead of using a leave-on treatment. You’ll still need some contact time on the skin with a benzoyl peroxide cleanser in order for it to work, but ultimately, you rinse it off, so it may not leave skin as flaky-dry as a gel. Or use the leave-on gel less often. “Just use it a few times a week to get through the winter and stay on track,” says Stein Gold.

6. Skip scrubbing

When you see flakes, it’s tempting to want to exfoliate them all away, but you risk disrupting that fragile barrier layer, says Stein Gold. “I would hold off on any exfoliation, especially if you’re on a topical retinoid,” she says. By nature, retinoids promote natural exfoliation, so you may overdo it and end up with more redness and flakiness. “Let your medication do its job, and don’t do a lot of extraneous things,” says Stein Gold.

7. Add a humidifier to you room

This simple move will add moisture into the air, giving dry skin (hair and nails, too) a hit of hydration. It’s an especially smart move for acne-prone skin because your skin gets hydration without having to add anything heavy and oily to your skin.

8. Watch for hidden acne triggers

Lips need lots of love in the winter months. They lack oil glands, so this thin skin is very quick to dry out and turn flaky. But when you slather on a rich ointment, you can wind up with blemishes around your mouth, says Stein Gold. Look for one that is non-comedogenic, which means it includes ingredients that shouldn’t clog pores. And you don’t necessarily have to put it all around your lips, says Stein Gold. Try to keep it off the surrounding skin.

Information in the Acnepedia is for general educational purposes only. It should not be relied on as medical advice. You should not use this information for self-diagnosis or for treating any health problem or disease. Some of the information in the Acnepedia may reflect individual dermatologists' views and may be different from the label information on skincare products. You should always carefully follow the label information on skincare products. If you have questions about your health or the use of any drug or cosmetic skincare product, please speak to your healthcare provider. The provider of this website is not licensed to practice medicine in any state. Members of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists have reviewed the Acnepedia articles but have not evaluated the safety or efficacy of specific products and do not endorse or recommend specific products.

Linda Stein Gold, M.D.

Dr. Linda Stein Gold, Chair of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists, is the Director of Dermatology Clinical Research and Division Head of Dermatology at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She received her medical degree from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, completed an internship in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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