Damaged dry skin on human hands

Itchy, dry skin this winter? These tips from dermatologists may help

Learn how to prevent and treat red, rough hands during cold weather


Itchy, dry skin is common in the fall and winter – but it’s not inevitable, according to UC Davis Health dermatologists.

As temperatures drop, we crank up the thermostat, creating dry indoor heat with low humidity levels. Add frequent handwashing (always a good idea), and you have the perfect conditions for dry skin.

So, what should you do when the colder weather hits to protect your skin? Three of our dermatologists share their tips for keeping skin healthy and hydrated.

How can you prevent dry skin during the winter?

The goal is to lock in moisture to prevent dry skin before it starts.

Woman with brown hair, glasses, and a white and blue blouse.
Health Sciences Associate Professor of Dermatology Danielle Tartar

"Dry skin is horribly exacerbated this time of year. It's cold outside, it's dry outside," Danielle Tartar, associate professor of dermatology, explained. "You start losing water through the epidermis, or the outer layer of your skin. What we call your trans epidermal water loss increases up to 25 percent in the winter.”

Tartar advises using a cream on your entire body to adds a barrier to the skin that can prevent water loss and applying it as often as necessary. She encourages patients to avoid creams with preservatives or scents, which can sometimes be allergens and aggravate already irritated skin. And, she adds, don’t forget to carry lip balm to prevent chapped or cracked lips.

You can also use a humidifier to increase the humidity in your home to counter the dry indoor heat.

How often should I shower in the winter?

Most people don’t need to shower every day. Keep it short and avoid hot water. While hot water may feel good on your dry skin, it removes more of the skin’s natural oils and evaporates faster, pulling the moisture from your skin along with it.

Turn the dial down, use lukewarm water, and choose showers over baths.

Use mild, unscented cleansers rather than soaps. Use only in areas where it is needed, such as underarms, groin, buttocks, skin folds, feet, face, and hair. Pat, don't wipe, excess water off with a towel, and apply a cream or a moisturizer immediately after to help seal in the moisture. If acne is a concern, look for "non-comedogenic” on the label, which means a product is less likely to clog pores.

When handwashing, does the type of soap matter?

Frequent handwashing is important to help prevent colds and flu as well as reduce the chance of  COVID-19 transmission.

Antibacterial soap and gels are still encouraged in public settings. However, once at home, you should use mild, scent-free soaps and avoid skin care products containing alcohol. Be sure to use a moisturizer after each handwashing.

Barbara Burrall
You want a cream and not a lotion. A lotion is mostly water which doesn't protect against the evaporation of the water in the skin, whereas creams and moisturizers protect and help hold that water in." Barbara Burrall, clinical professor

Should I use a lotion or a cream?

“It’s important for people to carry a travel-size moisturizing cream. Always apply it immediately after you cleanse your hands," Health Sciences Clinical Professor and Residency Program Director Barbara Burrall said. "You want a cream and not a lotion. A lotion is mostly water which doesn't protect against the evaporation of the water in the skin, whereas creams and moisturizers protect and help hold that water in."

Do I have to wear sunscreen even if the sun’s not out?

In a word, yes! Sunscreen should be applied daily, even on overcast days. UV rays pass through winter clouds and penetrate the skin, which stresses the skin’s moisture barrier.

Woman with black hair black pin-striped skirt suit in a medical office.
Director of Multicultural Dermatology and Hair Disorders and Health Sciences Clinical Professor Oma Agbai

"The sun comes out 365 days a year, even when it's rainy and overcast," said Oma Agbai, director of Multicultural Dermatology and Hair Disorders. “UV exposure even on a cloudy day can make your skin look duller, can lead to more precancers or skin cancers and premature aging.”

Remember to use SPF 30 or higher. Agbai advises applying sunscreen after you’ve applied moisturizer.

What winter clothing is best for skin?

Natural fibers like wool or synthetic fibers like polyester can cause skin irritation and worsen dry skin. If you want to wear these, try to wear a base layer made of breathable fabric such as cotton or bamboo underneath, so the irritating fibers are not in direct contact with your skin.

Should I switch laundry detergents in the winter?

It’s best to use fragrance-free detergent to wash clothing or look for ones labeled hypoallergenic or “free and clear”, to reduce skin irritation from fragrances, preservatives, or dyes. Also, avoid dryer sheets which can add irritants.

Burrall, Tartar and Agbai all add that the key is paying close attention to your skin, which is your body’s biggest organ. With healthy hydration habits, many people can avoid the dry, itchy skin that is so common this time of year.