How to Switch Over Your Skincare Routine for Fall and Winter

When your skin is already sensitive, a new season brings on a slew of new complexion concerns.

by Beth Shapouri Health Writer

It may seem like time is standing still right now, but we assure you fall has arrived. And, as usual, it’s brought with it a whole new set of skincare priorities as the weather shifts in many parts of the country. With the air becoming drier, temperatures falling, and winds picking up in some areas, a few small changes to your regimen can help keep your skin happy all season long. Below, three trickiest ways autumn can impact chronic skin conditions, plus how to combat them.

Autumn Worry: Weather-Triggered Skin Conditions

As the weather cools, irritation can go up, which means you might get flares of certain skin conditions. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in NYC and associate professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital says it makes sense: “When the skin barrier becomes disrupted, it is more likely to become inflamed.” That means dermatologists’ offices are flooded with complaints of psoriasis, eczema, and the like when the leaves start to turn. Here, the most common conditions that flare in the fall.

Psoriasis. This itch-inducing condition characterized by tale-tell plaques is “normally better in the summer because of all the UV rays from natural sunlight,” explains Sharleen St. Surin-Lord, M.D., an assistant professor of dermatology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. So when fall ushers in more indoor time, you’ve got to rely on those major psoriasis-curbing strategies like using moisturizer liberally throughout the day, firing up a humidifier at home, and talking with your doctor about adjusting your treatment regimen or adding ultraviolet light therapy.

Pityriasis rosea. Why this benign scaly pink rash can pop up more often on the trunk, upper legs, and arms this time of year: ”Pityriasis rosea is thought to be triggered by a viral infection, and since viruses are more common in the fall and winter, in some regions see more cases during that time,” says Hayley Goldbach, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon at Brown University in Providence, RI. Home remedies include oatmeal baths and anti-itch lotions. While it is not a dangerous condition, talk to your doctor if the rash is itchy to see if medications can help with the discomfort.

Hives. Fall allergy season brings the increased risk of hives as you come in contact with itch-triggering fall staples like wool fabrics and ragweed pollen. If you get them once, an over-the-counter antihistamine will help, but if they happen frequently, Dr. Surin-Lord says to make an appointment with your derm for an Rx.

Eczema. Blame the dry fall air and scratchy scarves and sweaters for eczema flares. To help keep them at bay, look for soft cotton fabrics. And Dr. Surin-Lord recommends moisturizing with a hydrator featuring ceramides, which she calls “the cement that holds the skin cells intact to keep moisture in.” One of her go-tos is Eucerin Eczema Care, $9.50, cvs.com. And if you have an episode that doesn’t clear, don’t suffer—head to your dermatologist to discuss your prescription options.

Autumn Worry: Cooler, Drier Air

The combination of fall’s crisp, brisk edge, blustery winds, and dry indoor heater air can do a number on your skin. Explains Dr. Zeichner, “Cold weather and low humidity put a strain on the skin, stripping essential oils needed to maintain hydration. This translates to microscopic cracks in the outer layer, with loss of hydration, dryness, and inflammation.” Ouch. Here’s how to prevent that from happening, especially if you have psoriasis.

Moisturize intelligently. Cool, dry air calls for richer moisturizer formulas—especially in the face of irritating masks that many of us wear for protection against COVID-19. “As the weather gets less humid, it will be especially important to keep your skin moisturized underneath it,” says Dr. Goldbach. That means switching to a heavier nighttime moisturizer before bed to help restore the skin barrier while you sleep. But for those who need even more of an assist, Dr. Zeichner recommends putting a hydrating serum on before your hydrating cream, which will add another boost of moisture. Think of it as layering like you would with clothes. One to try: Isdinceutics Hyaluronic Booster, $39, isdn.com.

Prepare for wind. Fall in much of the northern U.S. is known for its blustery days, which can wreak havoc. In fact, one study in the Journal of Society of Cosmetic Chemists of Japan showed that not only does wind exposure decrease hydration but it also slows the replacement of the sebum level after. And on exceptionally windy days, there’s the chance of windburn, a sunburn-like condition caused by a combination of dry air, wind friction, and UV exposure.

What to do? Dr. Zeichner says, “My best recommendation is to apply a moisturizer right before going outside—think of it as your base layer. Physical protection from the environment is helpful too, be it a scarf or even your face mask—both will prevent wind from directly irritating the skin.” However, make sure to avoid scratchy fabrics like wool, which can not only be rough on skin but can trigger a flare-up of chronic conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Try a humidifier. One of the things doctors stress for chronic skin diseases: preventing dryness before it starts. Enter a humidifier which adds moisture to the air, helping to head off winter irritation. The gadgets, according to Dr. Zeichner, “can be used all year long if needed, but I typically recommend using one starting in the fall when the temperature starts to drop.”

His advice: Stick to a cool-mist humidifier, like Honeywell Cool Moisture Germ-Free Humidifier HCM-350, $62, walmart.com. “They are as effective as hot steam ones but are safer because they will not burn the skin if you get too close.”

Remember balm. “Your lips are very sensitive–they can be the first thing to show dryness or even vitamin deficiencies,” says Dr. St. Surin-Lord. And with the dry air, that means you can not only be looking at parched lips but potentially an increase in chronic lip conditions like chelitis (caused by lip licking) or cold sores for those who get them, all thanks to your old friend irritation. That’s why it’s extra important to keep them hydrated as the seasons change. She recommends a lip balm with SPF 30 like Aquaphor Lip Repair, $4, ulta.com, for everyone but especially for anyone who likes to participate in outdoor fall activities like golf, fishing, and biking, as she reminds that lips are vulnerable to skin cancer.

Take care of hands. Parched palms and fingers are always a fall worry, but now with all the extra hand-washing that should be happening across the board, Dr. Goldbach explains that they “tend to get dryer than other parts of the body because they are chronically exposed to environmental trauma.” That means gloves will help when you leave the house by offering protection. And remember to reach for your favorite hand cream immediately after every washing, which, according to a study in BMC Dermatology, significantly decreases skin roughness after repeated sudsing sessions.

Don’t forget the rest. The skin on your body needs a little extra love in the fall, too. Dr. St. Surin-Lord says it’s all about the formula you use. “Lotions are light and good enough to use during the summer and late spring, but during the colder months, I recommend creams and even ointments for extra dry skin.” Experiencing flakes? She recommends a moisturizer with an alpha hydroxy acid to add a bit of exfoliation for those dead skin cells. Her pick for all skin types (including reactive chronic conditions like psoriasis): CeraVe Psoriasis Moisturizing Cream With Salicylic acid , $26, cvs.com (although she notes that sal acid is a derivative of aspirin for those who are allergic).

Autumn Worry: Sun

Many people pack away the sunscreen when summer ends, but UV rays in the fall and winter can be just as damaging as they are in the warmer months. Even when the sun doesn’t feel warm, it can damage your skin, upping the chances of melanoma and premature aging, even on cloudy days. Here’s how to stay sun-smart all season.

Try a physical blocker. In 2019, the FDA suggested more research needs to be done into the impact of chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone when absorbed into the bloodstream. In the meantime, many dermatologists like Dr. St. Surin-Lord recommend mineral sunscreens—especially for those with sensitive skin. Dr. Zeichner agrees and points out that it’s also a great chance to get in some high-quality skincare ingredients to help replace any of that summer glow you might be missing right now. His pick: Ghost Democracy's Invisible Lightweight Daily Face Sunscreen SPF 33, which, he explains, “contains niacinamide, which helps with tone and texture, and turmeric and artichoke leaf extracts, which are rich in antioxidants.”

Check the expiration date. Sunscreen formulas have a shelf life of three years, and it can be easy to forget exactly when you acquired each bottle. That’s why at the change of every season Dr. St. Surin-Lord reminds her patients to check the expiration date to make sure they haven’t gone past the point in which the ingredients are at their full strength. “What an awful experience it would be to mow the lawn, garden, or hang out in the park thinking you’re safe with expired sunscreen on!”

Follow the rules. You know how you know to apply sunscreen 30 minutes before heading outside and then reapplying every two hours in the summer? Dr. St. Surin-Lord insists the same goes for the winter. Since the sun isn’t quite top of mind as it is in the summer, it can be easy to forget!

Beware the glare. Late in the season as snow starts to fall in some parts of the country, there’s an extra element to toss into your sun-protection consideration: bounce back. “If you are shoveling snow or skiing, you should wear sunscreen as the sun reflects on the snow and to your skin, causing sunburns,” says Dr. St. Surin-Lord. “That,” she insists, “is a job for SPF 50.”

Beth Shapouri
Meet Our Writer
Beth Shapouri

Beth Shapouri is an award-winning beauty, health, wellness, and lifestyle freelance writer whose work has appeared in Glamour.com, Elle.com, Health Monitor, Magnolia Journal, Marie Claire, RealSelf.com and more. Career highlights include a multi-year stint as Lead Beauty Writer for Glamour.com and contributing to a New York Magazine package on circumcision that received a National Magazine Award for service.