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Skin and Winter: What are the Effects of Cold?

Just as extreme heat, all skin types are also assaulted by negative temperatures. Dry air, low humidity, harsh cold wind... these factors inherent to winter can provoke harmful effects on the skin. The nose, cheeks, ears, and lips are the areas that suffer the most winter damage. But how does the skin react in winter to these conditions?

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Effect #1: The drop in temperature leads to itching, and dry, flaky skin.

When the weather cools and the humidity in the air decreases, the skin can struggle to stay hydrated, leading to dryness and irritation. At the same time, the cold outdoors and harsh winds can strip the skin of its sebum, while people increase their indoor heating, further promoting moisture loss which affects the amount of water available in the upper layers of the skin. It is well known that moisture is essential for the proper functioning of the skin barrier. Research has shown that the water content is lower in the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the skin, in winter than in summer.

This can be explained by a decrease in lipid concentrations in the stratum corneum, including a 40% reduction in ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol that help retain moisture, indicating a reduced function of the hydrolipidic layer during the winter season. These functional skin differences thus contribute to dryness and irritation. Additionally, taking hot baths or showers can further damage the skin's surface. However, if the dryness persists or worsens (xerosis), dead cells on the surface of the epidermis accumulate, causing the "rough" state of the skin.

Effect #2: Cold weather can make wrinkles and fine lines more visible.

It is known today that exposure to wind and variations inhumidity influence the homeostasis of the skin barrier and therefore alter skin conditions, such as the water content of the stratum corneum and skin roughness. However, it has been reported that a low humidity environment (<40%) like in winter can induce the appearance of fine lines, linked to a decrease in skin elasticity. Indeed, a study conducted among 20 volunteers revealed a significant increase in fine wrinkles 30 minutes after exposing the eyelid skin to low humidity compared to high humidity, and that this impact could increase with exposure time. In another study, men subjected to a state of chronic dryness showed significant changes in wrinkle depth during the winter season. In winter, the hydration state of the stratum corneum and the extensibility of the skin is less. However, these biophysical parameters are crucial for maintaining its suppleness.

Effect #3: In winter, lips become chapped.

Another phenomenon that frequently occurs in winter, affecting anyone at any age is chapped lips. Besides nutritional deficiencies, allergies, taking certain medications, or licking the lips frequently, low temperatures and dry weather are some of the reasons why lips can become cracked. Unlike other parts of the face, the skin of the lips is thinner and does not contain sebaceous glands, which increases the skin's susceptibility to drying out, cracking, stinging/burning, and even bleeding if not properly cared for.

Effect #4: The cold and dry winter months cause erythema.

The properties of the skin also evolve according to the ambient temperature, leading to vasomotor reactions and a disruption of the skin's barrier function. In addition to causing dry skin and itching, many people's skin can become red when exposed to a cold environment. Indeed, studies have shown a positive correlation between outdoor temperature and the onset of redness.

The capillaries and blood flow change with ambient temperature, especially if you already suffer from a skin condition (rosacea, eczema, etc.). Indeed, exposure to harsh winter conditions can cause a contraction of the blood vessels, as well as a reduction in sebum production.

Furthermore, while during the cold seasons the skin loses a lot of moisture and the skin barrier is damaged, it no longer fulfills its protective function, thus becoming more vulnerable and reactive to environmental irritants and allergens, thereby inducing a mild skin inflammation. Indeed, an increase in the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-α) and cortisol, as well as the number of dermal mast cells, has been observed.

We are now aware of the need to protect ourselves in the summer, but the same applies in winter. Precautions must also be taken to reduce the impact of winter aggressions on the skin. It is therefore essential to keep our hands, feet, face, and any other part of our body protected from the cold to prevent the onset of symptoms and prevent their worsening.

Sources

  • GALL Y. & al. Seasonal variability in the biophysical properties of stratum corneum from different anatomical sites.Skin Research and Technology (2000).

  • KITAHARA T. & al. Effect of room humidity on the formation of fine wrinkles in the facial skin of Japanese. Skin Research and Technology (2007).

  • ROGIERS V. & al. Seasonal effects on the nasolabial skin condition. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology (2009).

  • PIOT B. & al. Influence of season on some skin properties: winter vs. summer, as experienced by 354 Shanghaiese women of various ages. International Journal of Cosmetic Science (2011).

  • GROVE G. L. & al. Dry skin in the winter is related to the ceramide profile in the stratum corneum and can be improved by treatment with a Eucalyptus extract. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology (2013).

  • THYSSEN J. P. & al. The effect of environmental humidity and temperature on skin barrier function and dermatitis. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (2016).

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