Winter Is Coming—Here's How to Transition Your Skincare Routine

‘Tis the season ... to change up your skincare.

winter-skincare: woman in sweater with hydrated skin
Photo: Getty Images

Your wardrobe isn't the only thing you should switch come winter. Those lightweight gel moisturizers and charcoal cleansers that worked just fine in September might not cut it come December. As colder temperatures approach, dry air, frigid winds, and constant exposure to indoor heat suck the moisture from your skin, stripping it of oils essential for healthy skin barrier function. These conditions can also spark skin sensitivity, redness, and irritation. Bottom line: A regimen shakeup is due.

But don't contemplate an entire overhaul just yet. You might just need a few simple swaps and additions, according to Doris Day, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York. "Take a look at how your skin changes, and adjust or switch out the products accordingly," she advises. "In general, you need to be careful to use more gentle cleansers and richer moisturizers." To keep skin happy and hydrated—and flaky freakout-free—follow these dermatologist-recommended skincare switcharoos to execute a seamless transition.

Transition Your Cleanser to a Balm, Oil, or Cream

While foaming, bubbly cleansers are fun to apply, they're not doing your skin any favors. "Foaming or salicylic acid-based cleansers are great at removing dirt and oil, but contain sulfates that can be more drying than other types of cleansers." says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Cleansing creams, balms, and oils can effectively wash the skin while keeping the skin hydrated and not disrupting the skin barrier."

If you suffer from pimples, tread lightly with acne-focused skincare rooted in salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. When used in excess, these harsh ingredients can exacerbate dry skin. If you're a regular user, use those products in tandem with pH-optimized skincare that helps regulate skin barriers thrown off balance.

Add a Good Exfoliator

The benefits of exfoliation—when done right—are no secret. Gentle exfoliation helps remove dead skin cells accumulated from dry winter air, leaving your skin looking more glowy and helping your post-cleaning moisturizer absorb better, according to Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

That being said, don't overdo it! "We live in a society of over-exfoliators," says Dr. Zeichner. "While exfoliating can help brighten the skin by removing dead cells, overdoing it can disrupt the outer skin layer, leading to dryness and irritation. Exfoliate once per week, and advance to twice weekly if you can tolerate it."

Cut Down on Shower Time and Temperature

While winter weather seems like the optimal time for a long, hot bath, resist the urge. According to Dr. King, prolonged contact with hot water can strip skin of its natural moisture, leaving you even drier. "Take brief lukewarm showers no more than once per day," she says. "And immediately after the shower, while your skin is damp, apply rich moisturizers to lock in hydration. Use enough to leave your skin feeling well hydrated, which means you may need to apply more than in the summer months."

If your skin is flakier than usual, try dry brushing, a ritual that involves rubbing your skin with a brush in a light, circular motion. The mechanical action works wonders for exfoliating dry winter skin and promoting lymphatic drainage. Plus, it's one heck of a self-massage.

Switch From Lotion-based Moisturizer to a Cream

If you take away one thing, it's this: The cardinal rule of wintertime skincare is keeping skin hydrated. A lighter lotion may satisfy your skin during the dog days of summer, but that's not into colder weather. "While humectants may have been sufficient to keep the skin hydrated during humid months, emollients and occlusives will be more important during low-humidity conditions," says Dr. King.

Let's back that up a bit:

  • Humectants (that is, hyaluronic acid and glycerin) are low-molecular-weight substances that extract water from the air and into the skin.
  • Emollients usually come in the form of creams and lotions that help skin barrier function.
  • Occlusives are oils and waxes that form a layer on the skin and physically block water from escaping.

According to Dr. King, an ideal winter moisturizer contains all three components. But don't worry—these heavier moisturizers can still be non-comedogenic (read: they won't break you out).

Layer Your Skincare

Not to keep comparing skincare to clothing, but it's really the best metaphor here. Think of skincare application like outerwear for your skin: Just like you layer clothing to keep warm in cooler months, your skin needs the same to prevent overdrying. "Layering allows you to address multiple skin concerns with different products at the same time," says Dr. Zeichner. For a quick explainer on how to layer skincare, a good rule-of-thumb is to layer lightest to heaviest (watery toner first, serum second, and moisturizer third).

According to Dr. King, some hot ingredients to look out for in the cold are ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, bakuchiol, and botanical oils. When used in conjunction, they soothe inflammation, restore hydration, and strengthen the skin barrier.

And don't forget the SPF, which yes, you do need in winter. "Even incidental sunlight exposure adds up over a lifetime," says Dr. Zeichner. "While the effect of the sun may be stronger over the summer, you are not immune from potential UV damage during the winter. In fact, UV light reflects off of snow, so you can get a bad sunburn even in the dead of winter."

Incorporate an Overnight Mask

Not that we need an excuse to apply a face mask; but if you haven't started, winter is the best time to do it. The world of skincare masks is pretty extensive, but don't sleep—or do—on overnight masks. Designed to be the final step of your nighttime skin regimen, overnight masks help lock in all those serums, creams, and oils applied earlier.

"Your skin undergoes circadian rhythms," says Dr. Zeichner. "Skin hydration levels start to decline in the afternoon and continue overnight, so p.m. masking is extremely helpful to keep the skin hydrated." If sleeping in a room with particularly dry heat, pair your overnight mask with a bedside humidifier to further seal in moisture.

Overnight masking is also a great opportunity to incorporate more targeted treatments to your skin. For example, those with eczema may benefit from ingredients like ceramides and aloe, while those seeking anti-aging benefits may choose a night mask infused with retinol or bakuchiol.

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