How to Keep Winter Skin Seasoned Like a Cast-Iron Skillet | The Survival Doctorby James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Winter can do a number on your skin. Add the cold to the dry air, mix in a little wind, and it can be downright dangerous—potentially life-threatening if you tend to ignore it and don’t properly treat the damage.

How many of us have gone out to play on a cold winter’s day, only to go to bed that night with a red, raw, painful face?

It can be from sunburn or windburn, but usually it’s both. Cracks in the dry skin—even blisters—can occur. If the skin gets infected, that can be dangerous. If you can’t get to a medical facility, it could be even deadly. But there are simple things you can do to prevent this damage. Basically, just keep your skin well-seasoned, like a cast-iron skillet.

How Natural Oil Protects Your Skin

Normally your skin is covered with a thin, oily, waterproof layer that protects you from the elements. It also helps keep moisture in so your skin doesn’t dry out.

Extreme cold or heat changes this layer so it doesn’t work as well. It’s a little like the oil you cook with. Get it too hot or too cold and its quality changes. Now add in wind damage and this layer can literally be destroyed.

Without the oil, the water from your skin escapes. Dry air and wind can dry your skin to a crackle. Also, oil-free skin is more sensitive to the sun.

Most of the time you can go inside and warm up. But what if you can’t? What if you’re stranded, or if your shelter is destroyed? Or you need to be outside to work? Or play? How can you prevent winter burn or treat it after it happens?

Does Wind Really Burn?

Technically, the wind doesn’t usually burn your skin, but it can lead to similar damage by drying it out and making it more sensitive to the sun.

7 Steps to Preventing Sunburn and Windburn

1. Cover up. Especially if it’s windy, cover your skin. You’ll probably wear gloves, but cover up your face as well with some sort of cloth.

2. Drink fluids. It’s obvious but so easy to ignore. You must keep your skin hydrated from the inside or there’s going to be very little moisture to protect.

3. Use sunscreen. But it’s winter! It’s cloudy! You don’t need sunscreen. Right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. For exposed skin, you may need it even more than on a summer beach. The UV rays that blister your skin shoot right through those clouds. And the sunscreen helps protect your oily layer that helps keep the moisture in. Use SPF 15 or better, and reapply it every few hours. Don’t forget the lips.

The Survival Doctor guidebooks4. Wear sunglasses or goggles. The cold and wind can dry out and damage your eyes also. And snow reflects sunlight better than water or beach sand ever could.

5. Moisturize. If you’ve got your own special moisturizers that you’re accustomed to, go for it. But if you’re in a fix, petroleum jelly works just fine. Even vegetable oil will do. As long as you cover yourself well, it doesn’t have to be that thick. But it is a good idea to reapply it frequently.

6. Cut back on the hot baths. Remember, heat damages your oily layer of skin. If you want to protect it, you need to forgo those hot, steaming baths. Instead take a quick, warm shower or bath. Use a mild soap and don’t scrub too much. If you want to go really wild, limit your shower or bath to every other day.

7. Use a humidifier. If you have one or can get one, it helps make the dry inside air a little moister.

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How to Treat Winter Burn

Although the skin is usually not actually burned, the damage from the wind, sun, and cold can have the same affects. The skin becomes red, raw, sometimes swollen. Occasionally it can even blister.

And because of that, I’d treat it like a burn.

If the skin becomes infected despite your efforts, check out my post on honey. It may be that there’s no alternative but to take oral antibiotics.

What about you? Have you ever had a bad case of windburn or other skin damage from the cold weather? How bad was it? What did you do? How do you keep that from happening?

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Photo by Viewminder on Flickr.