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Winter Acne: How to Treat Breakouts During the Winter Months

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 1/22/2021

Feel like those cold weather days are damaging your skin? Your intuition may be freezing cold, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

The cold weather can really wreak havoc on your skin, leading to additional problems and potential flare ups of so-called winter acne.

But whether your skin feels worse or not when the temperature drops, skincare and your personal skincare routine should definitely adapt to the seasons. You may need a different acne treatment during the winter—one designed to help prevent dryness.

Let’s take a look at why.

Why Winter Drys Out Your Skin

Winter weather can bring your body down, and it can be about more than low sunlight intake and the effects of seasonal affective disorder. 

Cold air can also harm your skin, mostly by sapping moisture from it

Cold air means that the humidity in the air drops, and when that happens the moisture can literally be pulled from your skin. 

Studies show that lowered moisture content is one of the many things that can throw off the healthy balance of your skin’s moisture and oil production, leading to dry skin deprived of both its moisture and oils. 

And that can lead to acne breakouts, causing cold weather pimples to push through, especially if you have acne prone skin . 

There’s more. Additional irritants like harsh wind causing wind burn can further harm your skin health. 

It’s often wrongly believed that reduced blood flow from the cold may be the culprit. It actually has more to do with the recovery rate of your skin’s temperature — a stressor that can sap efficiency from your skin’s processes in addition to causing general dryness.

It can also reduce things like lipid production — leaving your natural and healthy oils diminished. 

When your oil glands are thrown off, it can lead to the accumulation of dead cells in your pores, which can in turn lead to clogged pores and hair follicles, making just the right conditions for the formation of acne.

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How to Protect Yourself

Protecting yourself from these increased seasonal sensitivities is about vigilant care, with a gentler approach. Your skin is dealing with more external stressors when it’s cold out, so you may need to change up your typical skincare routine as well as your acne care approach. 

Here are some guidelines. 

Change Up How You Use Retinoids Like Tretinoin

Tretinoin, otherwise known as retinoic acid, is a prescription vitamin A compound. 

Plenty of studies have shown it can be a powerful and effective tool in fighting acne, where it helps exfoliate dry skin and promote a return to healthy patterns of skin cell and oil production.

But the same studies show that tretinoin can also be an irritant, giving it similar properties to that cold wind you’re trying to compensate for. 

A reduced volume (every other day) or concentration (lower dosage) in the winter will still be effective in fighting acne, but will create less irritation, because your skin is already suffering enough without you making things potentially worse.

Retinoids like retin-A® and retinol should be handled with more care during these more taxing months. Check out our guide to using retinoids in winter.

And of course, if you’re contemplating using or altering your dosage of tretinoin, it’s always worth schedule time to speak to your healthcare provider first.

Add a Moisturizer

You may not need to use a moisturizer to attain the skin you want during the rest of the year, but the harsh winter weather might leave your skin needing an extra booze until things heat back up.

Moisture is important for healthy skin. You need it for producing proteins and clearing away free radicals. 

But hydrating your skin requires a little more work than logging all your water consumption for the day — it also requires a proper topical moisturizer to help keep the winter wind from wicking away your water content.  

Whatever moisturizer you use, look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid has been shown to help your skin better retain moisture, which is imperative during seasons where it’s being pulled from you by lower humidity.

Stay Vigilant About Sun Protection

Preventative measures are much more important when you’re working with increased sensitivity. As such, you need to be careful of other external stressors, too. 

One of the biggest internal skin stressors you can protect against is sunlight — specifically ultraviolet radiation. 

UVA and UVB rays can cause damage, so use sunscreen with an appropriate SPF (at least SPF 15, but 30 and above are even better), and limit yourself prolonged sun exposure without protection. 

As an added benefit, that may also reduce your risk of skin cancer.

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Final Thoughts

Winter acne may have affected you in the past, but with some added vigilance and a few skin care changes, you don’t have to deal with its effects every time the temperature drops. 

If your acne is severe, consider consulting a healthcare provider or certified dermatology practitioner, too. They’ll be able to offer you all the guidance you need.

Whether you’re staying in this winter or braving the cold, make sure to protect your skin, because it’ll be working just as hard protecting you.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.