Cold Weather Acne Treatment Routine

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

Winter acne is a common phenomenon among people with acne-prone skin, especially those living in areas that have particularly dry, chilly winters. Although all acne is caused by the same basic factors of inflammation, oil production, and bacteria, winter acne is especially influenced by the irritation and inflammation that go hand-in-hand with a dry atmosphere. Without enough moisture in the air, our skin can easily dry out, which creates all kinds of acne-related problems. To combat this, it helps to develop a cold weather acne treatment routine that differs slightly from your normal routine.

Woman playing with snow outside
If you get more acne in the winter, it’s likely due to the increasingly cold, dry air.

Dry Air and Inflammation Are the Top Causes of Acne in Winter

The biggest reasons many of us get more acne in winter are the dry winter air and the inflammation it causes. Our skin needs moisture in order to protect itself from irritants, and usually, we get a decent amount of that necessary moisture from the air around us. However, winter air is often dry, and instead of depositing moisture, it absorbs it, leaving our skin exposed and fragile.

This causes acne because without the proper moisture, even the smallest things can irritate and inflame our skin, from walking in a harsh winter wind to simply touching our face too much. Once the skin is inflamed, the pores constrict and trap oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria below the surface, where they turn into blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, or even cysts. Because our skin is so much more easily inflamed during the winter months, acne is far more likely to form.

Other Common Winter Skin Conditions

If you don’t typically get acne, but you experience unusual bumps and spots during the winter, you may have a different skin condition that often appears during cold weather.

Acne rosacea is a skin condition that causes red, pimple-like bumps to appear in a rash-like formation. For some, this simply looks like a deep blush, but for others, the bumps may be raised enough that they are easily confused with pimples. If you aren’t sure if you have rosacea or acne, it’s important to speak with a dermatologist in order to get the best treatment.

Eczema could also be disguising itself as acne, since it typically appears as dry, itchy patches of skin that may be accompanied by raised bumps that look like pimples, and dry winter air is a common trigger for a flare-up. Eczema is one of the most common skin conditions in the world, and its defining characteristic is irritated and inflamed skin. However, with eczema, there isn’t always a cause for the irritation; instead, it seems that the immune system imagines a threat and inflames the skin to try and protect it.

Both rosacea and eczema can appear on either the face or the body, but this last winter condition, called keratosis pilaris, is much more likely to appear only on the body. Keratosis pilaris causes small bumps to appear in a rash-like formation, typically on the upper arms, thighs, or buttocks. Like acne, rosacea, and eczema, dry air often makes keratosis pilaris worse, so if you’ve never had acne before, but small bumps just started appearing on your body, talk to a dermatologist to find out if it might be keratosis pilaris.

Winter Acne Treatment Tips

If your acne gets worse in the winter months, then you don’t want to keep using the same routine you use during the rest of the year. You need some winter acne treatment tips to protect your skin from dryness, inflammation, and the resulting winter acne.

Man wearing red coat with brown scarf wrapped in his neck
The best way to protect your skin from cold weather acne is to prevent it from getting too dry, because dryness leads to irritation, inflammation, and acne.

First, determine what skin type you have. If your acne gets worse in the winter, you probably don’t have incredibly oily skin, but you could have dry, combination, or sensitive skin. Each skin type requires slightly different treatments because they each react to different factors. For instance, dry skin needs as much protection from irritation as possible because it doesn’t produce enough oil to protect the skin itself, but combination skin needs protection in some areas and drying ingredients in others.

Once you know your skin type, check out the ingredients on the products you’re currently using. Some ingredients in skin care products are okay to use in the summer, but may be too harsh for your skin in the winter. We discuss some ingredients to look out for in the sections below.

Finally, make sure you’re treating your skin right even when you’re out of the elements. Just staying out of the cold isn’t enough to protect you from dry skin in the winter because several elements in our own homes can continue to dry out skin even once you’re inside. Furnaces and heaters often pump out extremely dry air, which could increase the likelihood of acne, and many of us take scorching hot showers in the wintertime to warm up, but hot water is well known for drying out skin. We walk through several possible solutions to these problems in the section on humidifiers and other small improvements for acne below.

Know Your Skin Type

There are four basic skin types, and it’s important to know which one you have before you try to treat cold weather acne.

Oily Skin: If your acne actually improves in the winter, you probably have oily skin. Excess oil production is a problem for oily skin during most of the year because it can clog pores, but during the winter months when the cold, dry air dries out some of your oil, your skin will have enough oil to be well-protected, but not so much that it causes acne.

Dry Skin: If your acne is always worse in the winter and actually looks pretty good in the summer, you likely have dry skin. Dry skin naturally produces less oil than it really should, so it’s often left unprotected from irritants, which leads to increased inflammation and related acne. This is an even bigger problem during the winter when the air is so dry, cold, and irritating, and you will likely see increased acne.

Combination Skin: If parts of your skin seem very oily, but other parts are very dry, you probably have combination skin. This is one of the most popular skin types, but it can also be the most frustrating because it often requires several different products. You don’t want to apply a drying cream to the dry part of your face, and you probably don’t need a super intense moisturizer for the oily part of your face.

Sensitive Skin: Sensitive skin is very responsive to various chemicals and some natural ingredients. Winter air is very likely to irritate sensitive skin, but so is the harsh, bright sunlight of summer or the pollen of spring. If you have acne year-round and it seems to be affected by everything around you, you might have sensitive skin.

Woman looking in the mirror touching her cheeks
Once you know your skin type, you can find the best ingredients for all of your skin care products.

Finding the Right Moisturizer for Acne-Prone Skin in Winter

The first step to getting rid of cold weather acne is finding the right moisturizer for acne-prone skin in winter. A lot of people with acne tend to skip the moisturizing step for fear of clogging their pores, but moisturizer is essential for preventing the irritation and acne so common during the winter months.

One of the best ingredients you can find in a moisturizer is glycerin. Glycerin is a good ingredient for all skin types, from oily to sensitive, because it simply works by helping your skin attract and retain water, and that’s a good thing for everyone.

Another great moisturizer ingredient is sunscreen. Even though it’s cold, the sun’s rays still shine bright in the winter, meaning they can still cause sunburn, and getting sunburnt is a great way to irritate the skin and cause acne. If you have dark skin, make sure to avoid sunscreen containing zinc oxide though, as it has a bright white color that does not rub in very well and may actually collect in your pores, causing bright white spots.

When choosing the right moisturizer for your skin, it’s also important to know which ingredients to avoid. If you’ve had a bad experience with moisturizer in the past, it likely had comedogenic ingredients in it, AKA, ingredients that are very likely to clog pores. Some of the most common comedogenic ingredients in moisturizers are coconut oil, cocoa butter, and palm oil. If you’re looking for intense moisture, try shea butter, petrolatum, or beeswax instead.

If you have oily, combination, or sensitive skin, we recommend looking for a moisturizer with water and glycerin both listed in the first five ingredients, whereas if you have dry skin, you’ll want to find a moisturizer with shea butter, petrolatum, or another heavier ingredient listed in the first five ingredients.

Finding the Best Face Wash for Winter Acne

Because everything about winter tends to dry out our skin, the best face wash for winter acne is one that doesn’t dry it out even more. The tricky part is, most acne-fighting ingredients are somewhat drying. The best way to protect your skin while still reducing acne is to make sure your face wash contains both mild acne-fighting and moisturizing ingredients, and avoids ingredients that only serve to dry out skin.

Our favorite mild acne-fighting ingredient is salicylic acid. It’s safe for sensitive skin and it’s effective, even when used on oily skin. It works by absorbing into the pores to break up clogs, preventing blackheads and whiteheads mostly. If you have more pimples or cysts than blackheads, you may want to try a face wash with a very low concentration of tea tree oil. Pure tea tree oil can cause major irritation or even burns, but when diluted in a face wash, it effectively kills the bacteria that cause pimples, and it has been studied and proven to work against cystic acne as well.

The biggest ingredient you want to avoid when picking out the best face wash for winter acne is sodium lauryl sulfate, though sodium laureth sulfate isn’t great either. Both of these ingredients are highly comedogenic, plus they dry out the skin. Many brands and products include them in their products because they are foaming agents that make your facewash pleasantly sudsy, but they also strip away your skin’s natural oils, which is exactly the opposite of what your skin needs in the winter.

Exposed Facial Cleanser bottle
The best face wash for winter acne is gentle and effective, like our Facial Cleanser containing salicylic acid, sage extract, and other great ingredients for winter acne.

Our Facial Cleanser at Exposed contains no sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, but it does include salicylic acid to fight acne and sage extract to prevent irritation and dryness, making it an ideal face wash for the winter months.

Getting a Humidifier for Acne, and Other Small Changes That Could Help Your Skin

If you like the products you have, or if you’ve changed things up but you still want to do more for your skin, there are other small changes you can make in your daily life that could help, like getting a humidifier for acne or changing up the temperature of your showers.

A humidifier is a household device that deposits mist to make the air less dry, and it’s a great item to have if you live in a dry area. Even if you live in a generally humid climate, it can still be very useful in the winter, when the dry air from the furnace dries out even the most humid of environments. Having more moisture in the air will prevent your skin from drying out quite so badly, which in turn should decrease your winter acne.

Another great way to protect your skin during the winter months is by taking lukewarm showers. Warm water opens up the pores, which is a good thing, but if it’s too hot, it just irritates the skin and dries it out. If you can’t stand a shower that’s anything less than scalding, at least make sure to turn the water down to warm when you wash your face.