Is a Winter Rash to Blame for Your Dry, Red Skin?

If your skin's going haywire from the cold, dry climate, it could be winter rash. Here's what to do to prevent and heal a winter rash fast.

a person drying their hair with a hair towel and examining their facial skin in a mirror
Photo: Getty Images

About two years ago, I got my first winter rash: There were bright red patches of skin around my chin area that no amount of moisturizer could hydrate. It felt like all the life had been sucked out of my skin, and I was terrified of stepping outside into the harsh cold air again until I got it under control. And so, I stayed indoors and worked from home, slathering my face with oils and creams on repeat every 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I decided to do some research with the hope of determining what was truly going on with my skin so I could make sure I never had to experience this dry, bumpy situation again. I came across a blog post by skin-care expert and celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau that showed someone with similar symptoms. Rouleau's diagnosis? Something she dubbed as a "winter rash," which she explained is typically the result of a damaged skin barrier.

But what can cause a skin barrier to be damaged in the first place? And is this so-called "winter rash" a legit medical condition or an educated guess? Read on for more of what you need to know about winter rash, including how to spot it, treat it, and hopefully make sure you avoid it in even the chilliest of months.

Winter Rash, Explained

Although not an official medical condition, a winter rash can manifest as red, rough, parched, and patchy skin. It's essentially what happens when your skin barrier gets broken down during the cold, harsh climate of winter. When the barrier is compromised, be it due to chilling temperatures or a whole host of other reasons (think: over-exfoliating or cranking up the heat at home), moisture can more easily escape, making your skin more prone to irritation. Winter rashes can occur anywhere on your body, but they commonly affect your face or hands.

Winter rashes can be a direct effect of an irritant or a symptomatic effect of a larger issue, but the answer might be unclear. "It's not always possible to identify the triggers for these [skin rashes], but using the wrong products can be a common trigger," Rouleau tells Shape. And this is especially true if you're using harsher chemical exfoliants in the winter, as the wind and dry air combined with those stronger products can push your skin over the edge and trigger a rash, she explains.

A winter rash could also be merely a symptom of a larger medical condition, such as perioral dermatitis, a condition that results in a red, bumpy rash, sometimes with burning or stinging, says Rouleau. "Perioral dermatitis tends to occur near orifices — specifically near the mouth, nose, and sometimes the eyes — and is characterized by small red bumps and scaly red skin, most commonly under the corners of the mouth," says Hadley King, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "It can be a one-time occurrence or can flare up occasionally every few years. Or, for some people, it may flare seasonally," she explains.

Similarly, a winter rash can also be an exacerbation (or flare-up) of eczema — which usually involves red, itchy patches of skin — and psoriasis, which is often characterized by raised, thick, scaly skin, notes Dr. King. The point being: You may find it difficult to get to the root cause of your winter rash without visiting your dermatologist, she notes. The good news? Oftentimes, you can start to treat a winter rash at the first sign of symptoms.

If you suspect you have a winter face rash, the first thing you should do is scale back your skin-care routine and stick with just the basics, such as a gentle cleanser and moisturizer containing hydrating humectants, emollients, and occlusives, says Dr. King.

Think you could be dealing with a winter rash yourself? Here are the products to use and those to avoid if you start to develop red, bumpy patches of skin.

Products That Help a Winter Rash

Whenever you experience rashes during winter, the key is to keep your skin hydrated in order to restore its moisture barrier. And that's exactly what I did two winters ago when my skin seemingly went on strike: Several times a day for a total of three days, I applied a few drops of Maharindee The Change Maker Serum (Buy It, $70, maharindee.com) and then slathered my face in Iope Derma Repair Cica Cream (Buy It, $24, amazon.com). But while this regimen worked for me, there's no one-size-fits-all solution for healing your skin, since everyone is different, emphasizes Rouleau.

"If you were reapplying an oil often and it seemed to have helped you, then continue that," says Rouleau, nodding to my routine. "Oils do help deliver lipids to the skin which is needed for barrier repair," she explains. Rouleau has her own Pro Remedy Oil (Buy It, $70, reneerouleau.com), which helps repair dry, parched skin in need of some serious moisture due to retinol reactions, eczema, or perioral dermatitis.

Dr. King recommends Cetaphil for a gentle cleanser (Buy It, $15, target.com) and the Jojoba Company's face oil (Buy It, $20, thejojobacompany.com). The latter is made of extra-virgin, cold-pressed jojoba oil that provides skin with vitamins D and E, and omega fatty acids, all of which aid in healing the moisture barrier. Just use a cleanser, oil, and moisturizer if you're experiencing this rash and nothing else, advises Dr. King.

Products to Avoid for a Winter Rash

When you have a winter rash, "temporarily discontinue any active ingredients that could be irritating the skin and interfering with the skin barrier, such as retinoids, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and benzoyl peroxide," suggests Dr. King. Also, stay away from products with sulfates, as these can be "extremely drying and irritating," notes Rouleau.

You should also avoid any products that have a strong fragrance, whether that's a perfume or essential oil, says Rouleau. "If it smells strong, it means it has a high percentage of fragrance, which could exacerbate a rash," she explains. (If you're sensitive to fragrance, using a product with fragrance can cause allergic contact dermatitis — another cause of red, itchy skin — making your winter rash symptoms even worse.)

As for when the winter rash will go away? "It's hard to put a timeline on a face rash, especially if you are unsure of the cause since the culprit may still be triggering a rash response," says Rouleau. "But generally, a face rash can last anywhere from a day to a week. Using anti-inflammatory, moisturizing, and barrier-repairing products can help treat the winter rash and return the skin to its normal, healthy state," she advises. From there, you can typically start to ease back into your normal routine.

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