March 7, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty

Do You Have a Winter Rash? Here’s How To Treat and Prevent It

A distressed skin barrier can lead to red, itchy and scaly skin

person examining flaky skin on face

If it’s winter, your skin probably isn’t at its best. The cold, dry air outside and even the warm, dry air inside can leave your skin dry, itchy and scaly.


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And in some cases, you can have what looks like a rash — red patches with bumps and even blisters. Could it be a winter rash? And what is a winter rash?

A winter rash happens when your skin barrier is distressed thanks to a lack of moisture in the air and, therefore, moisture in your skin.

Everything from the blustery winter winds to taking hot showers can strip your skin of the moisture it needs to stay smooth and soft.

Dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD, explains what can cause a winter rash and how to keep your skin moisturized in cold conditions.

What does winter rash look like?

Skin not feeling so great? You may have a winter rash if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Redness.
  • Itching.
  • Bumps.
  • Blisters.
  • Swelling.
  • Flaking.
  • Sensitivity.

“Winter rash is most often characterized by ‘cracked’ looking skin with some redness and flaking,” explains Dr. Kassouf. “It certainly itches and can be more sensitive to the touch or when rubbing on fabrics and clothing. Bumps, blisters and swelling are more common when the skin has become secondarily infected or has become allergic to something in the environment. Both secondary effects happen more often when the skin barrier is disrupted.”

And where might winter rash pop up on your body? Can you have a winter rash on your hands?

“Winter rash can happen anywhere, though it’s most often seen on the extremities and areas most exposed to the environment and with the lowest density of sebaceous glands,” adds Dr. Kassouf.

That means you may see a winter rash pop up on:

  • Your arms.
  • Your hands.
  • Your legs.

Possible causes a winter rash

So, what’s causing your winter rash?

“Winter rash is dry skin that has been exacerbated by cold and dry environmental conditions,” explains Dr. Kassouf. “It often happens more to people who have a more sensitive baseline or are older with more sun damage and fewer active oil glands.”


You may be more prone to winter rashes if you have a history of:

“Any inflammation or disruption of barrier function will prevent the skin from adapting to a cold and dry environment,” stresses Dr. Kassouf.

A winter rash can look very similar to eczema, but Dr. Kassouf says there’s a key difference.

“Eczema is more an issue with immune sensitivity to the environment but there are many features that overlap,” she clarifies.

And if you’re returning home from a winter break where you vacationed in a sunny, humid spot, you may also be more likely to experience a winter rash.

“Many people returning from lovely sunny vacations with sunburns and recent exposure to humid environments do seem to itch and flake more as they resume normal activities in a dry and cold environment,” says Dr. Kassouf. “Sunburned skin will slough the outer damaged layers, further disrupting skin barrier function and making winter rash worse.”

How long does a winter rash last?

“A winter rash lasts until it’s properly cared for or until the humidity rises and the furnaces can stop working so hard,” says Dr. Kassouf.

Treatments and remedies for winter rashes

You have a winter rash — so, how do you treat it?

No. 1 tip? Make sure you’re moisturizing after every shower or bath.

“The best thing to do with a winter rash is to improve barrier function of the skin. This often includes applying emollients — ointments and oils are richer than creams, which are richer than lotions,” advises Dr. Kassouf.

“Emollients that include ingredients such as urea, lactic or glycolic acid or hyaluronic acid to break up scales and bind water to the skin help hydrate as well as moisturize dry scaly skin.”


When it comes to other winter rash treatments, Dr. Kassouf says you should also consider using a humidifier and watch how high you’re cranking your home’s thermostat — the lower the temperature the less likely your skin will become dried out.

And you also want to make sure you’re taking time for self-care, especially when it comes to the self-care of your skin.

“Stress and fatigue can limit self-care, decreasing how often we moisturize or care for our skin,” she notes.

But what if these at-home winter rash remedies aren’t helping? When should you see a doctor for your winter rash?

“If it’s waking you up at night and is itchy, weeping, crusting, swelling or you have a fever,” says Dr. Kassouf.

Preventing a winter rash

How can you keep your skin less dry during the cold winter months? Dr. Kassouf says to do the following:

  • Use a humidifier. This can help add moisture back into the air.
  • Bathe less often. You may tend to take more hot showers during the colder months. But all that hot water can strip the protective oils out of your skin.
  • Use fragrance-free soap. Body washes or fancy bar soap that are loaded with scents can be irritating to your skin.
  • Wear loose, breathable clothes. You’re cold, so it makes sense to put on the layers. But too many layers — especially if they’re made of wool or thick cotton — can cause you to sweat and lead to irritation. Instead, try to wear lightweight, breathable clothing made from cotton and other quick-drying fabrics.
  • Wear gloves when outside. Keep your hands protected from the dry, cold air while you’re outside.
  • Wear sunscreen. Yes, you should be wearing sunscreen even in the winter months. You want to protect your skin barrier from harsh UV rays. And if you’re outside skiing or snowboarding, you want to make sure you apply sunscreen throughout the day.
  • Limit how long you’re in front of a fire. Who doesn’t love a cozy night at home with a mug of cocoa in front of a roaring fire? Your skin! All that heat can dry out your skin. We’re not saying you can’t sit in front of a fire, but try to limit how long you do so.

Bottom line?

A winter rash can disrupt your life as you try to deal with red, itchy skin. But the good news is that most winter rashes can be treated at home by keeping your skin moisturized.

“Remember, your skin is the barrier between the harsh and contaminated outside world and all of your internal systems,” says Dr. Kassouf. “Taking care of your skin is vital to maintaining and improving your overall health.”

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