As summer’s scorching temps and steamy humidity slowly turn to earlier sunsets and cooler, drier air, the seasonal change in weather has a larger impact on our skin than you might think.
“Our skin is our first and most important barrier between our bodies and the outside world,” says Stanford-educated dermatologist Dr. Laurel Geraghty. “As temperatures and humidity levels drop, skin is one of the first organs to feel the effects, as it becomes dryer, more fragile, flakier, and itchier.”
Fall and winter are also when recurring skin conditions, like eczema, dandruff, and psoriasis rashes, tend to flare up, she cautions.
To keep skin radiant and healthy — and dry skin freak outs far, far away — follow these dermatologist-approved skincare swaps and tweaks to make the seasonal shift seamless.
Why Does My Skin Get So Dry in the Fall?
“In the fall and especially in the winter, the dip in humidity, cooler weather, hot showers, and indoor heaters all dry out the skin and damage the skin barrier,” explains Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, board-certified NYC dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology. “When the skin barrier is compromised, skin becomes sensitized, leading to cracks in the outer layer of the skin, loss of hydration, and eventually, inflammation.”
To soothe these negative seasonal effects on skin, a hydration-boosting skincare routine is critical and should also work to keep the skin barrier healthy. To help combat these changes, Dr. Kanchanapoomi Levin recommends using products rich in cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides.
When Should I Change My Skincare Routine?
It’s a subtle, delicate dance between summer and fall — one day it’s toasty enough for a tank top and the next you’re reaching for a hoodie — but there are a few seasonal red flags to nudge you to begin the transition.
A good rule of thumb is how often you’re reaching for a light jacket before going outside, says Houston-based dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon, Dr. DiAnne Davis. If you’re grabbing another layer of clothing more days than not, that’s a sign to re-evaluate your routine.
A slightly more playful seasonal sign, according to Dr. Geraghty, is when it’s cold enough to see your breath.
But most importantly, you have to listen to your own body. “Some patients with sensitive skin or extremely dry skin may have to make adjustments sooner than patients with oilier skin,” Dr. Davis explains.
Skincare Swap 1: Cleansers
Foaming cleansers or gels that help to control oil and do a nightly deep clean are a godsend when summer temps hit the 90s. But in the winter, when there’s less moisture in the air to begin with and the skin produces less oil, it’s a double dry skin whammy. Cleansers that strip skin of its natural oils will accelerate and intensify dry skin.
Tread lightly with acne-focused skincare made with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, cautions Davis, as these harsh ingredients can exacerbate dry skin. Bottom line: shelve the clarifying, acne-focused and super foamy cleansers until next summer.
Instead, opt for a gentle, creamy formulation, like dermatologist favorite CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser or the High Performance Cleanser from Macrene Actives. For an extra shot of moisture to the skin, try a cream-to-oil cleanser like Laneige’s Cream Skin Milk Oil Cleanser, to ensure a hydrated and healthy skin barrier.
Skincare Swap 2: Moisturizers
During the dog days of summer, a light lotion or tinted cream may be enough to keep skin moisturized and supple, but as soon as the temperature drops, all bets are off. There’s no way around it: Keeping skin hydrated in the cooler months is the cardinal rule of wintertime skincare.
To build a defense against dry skin, choose a rich, creamy moisturizer with humectants and occlusive ingredients. “Not only to draw water into the skin but also to seal the hydration into the skin,” says Dr. Kanchanapoomi Levin, who recommends the moisture-packed StriVectin Re-Quench Water Cream to her patients. “Overall, ingredients like glycerin, ceramides and Niacin ensure well hydrated skin as well as a robust and intact skin barrier.”
For the driest skin types, and those with eczema and psoriasis rashes, heavier creams and ointments containing petrolatum, like shelfie staple Aquaphor, quench and heal skin better than anything else, says Dr. Geraghty, even if it leaves a slightly messy, gooey feeling on the skin. And really, what’s a little stickiness compared to a lot of relief?
To really amp up the skin’s absorption, follow the technique that dermatologists often call the ‘soak and smear’: apply your serum or moisturizer after cleansing your face and patting dry, but while the skin is still damp for maximum hydration.
Skincare Swap 3: Serums
To go the extra mile to combat skin dehydration, layer on a nourishing serum, like the popular cult classic Dr. Barbara Sturm Hyaluronic Serum, that will help replenish lost moisture, giving you long-term hydration and smoother, plumper skin.
Pat the serum onto damp skin after cleansing but before a moisturizer.
Skincare Swap 4: Sunscreen
“Unless you’re out skiing, exercising, or golfing on a bright winter day, or unless you live in a southern state, there’s not much need for a high SPF sunscreen, that being SPF 50 or higher, since UVB rays are at a minimum,” says Dr. Geraghty.
On the flip side, UVA rays — the long wavelengths of sunlight that penetrate into the skin’s dermis, breaking down collagen and elastin, which contributes to sun spots, sagging, and wrinkling — dominate the winter months. And even worse: because of the cooler temps, it’s harder to feel the ray’s effects on your skin, which can lead to serious sun damage without even noticing.
“During the cool months, it’s important to choose a sunscreen labelled ‘broad spectrum,’ since the SPF rating refers only to protection against UVB and not UVA light,” explains Dr. Geraghty, who favors Elta MD UV Daily and Supergoop! Superscreen Daily Moisturizer SPF 40. “The ingredients available in the US that most effectively protect against UVA light are zinc oxide and avobenzone.”
Skincare Swap 5: Actives and Exfoliants
For sensitive skin types, tread lightly with potentially irritating ingredients, like alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, retinoids, and toners, says Dr. Geraghty, who scales back her own topical retinoid cream during the winter to three to four times per week versus her nearly daily summertime use.
Because it’s easier for the skin to become inflamed during the drier months, Davis also recommends cutting back on exfoliating. Chemical or physical exfoliation once or twice a week should be plenty, unless you have visible flakiness, as it can perpetuate the dehydration cycle by stripping the skin’s oils. And when you do exfoliate, go for a lighter, less intense exfoliant, like Skinceuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight.
When in doubt with wintertime actives, follow Dr. Geraghty’s words of wisdom: If anything makes the complexion stingy, burning, or pink, that could be a sign it’s too irritating for the season.
Skincare Swap #6: Lip Balm
If you think a thin swipe of flavored tinted lip balm will save your lips from getting chapped or cracked, think again. Load up on tiny tubes of Aquaphor — Dr. Geraghty keeps hers in several highly trafficked areas — or Vaseline to layer on throughout the day to proactively protect the skin.