Winter Rash

Cold weather can irritate skin and lead to dryness that causes a winter rash, which can return year after year even in people with otherwise healthy skin.

What is winter rash?

Winter rash is a skin irritation that is caused by dryness. Different from eczema or heat rash, winter rash is typically only experienced in winter months. The winter months and the cold air they usher in cause dryness both because of a lack of moisture in the air and because of heating efforts indoors to combat the cold.

Dryness is the cause of most cases of winter rash, which is a very common condition caused by a lack of moisture in the outer layer of the skin called the epidermis. Lipids and proteins in the epidermis work together to prevent the skin from drying out, and when any of these substances are low or missing, the skin becomes dry and more sensitive, which leads to winter rash.

Dry skin occurs more frequently in the older population due to the lack of natural oils in this age group. The hands, arms and lower legs are more prone to experiencing dryness leading to winter rash. The cold, dry air in the winter months leads to evaporation of skin moisture. Heating the indoor air to combat the cold also causes a lack of humidity that can dry out skin.

Some medications are also known to dry out skin and cause winter rash, a condition that can also be experienced by those that wash their hands frequently like health care workers, childcare workers and food preparation workers.

What are the causes of winter rash?

Winter rash is caused by the following conditions:

  • Dry, cold outdoor air
  • Hot indoor air with a lack of moisture
  • Excessive bathing in water that is too hot
  • Wool or synthetic clothing fibers
  • Harsh soaps and skin products
  • Fabric softeners
  • Psoriasis, eczema or other skin conditions
  • Bacterial infections
  • Allergies
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Sunburn

Symptoms of winter rash

Symptoms of winter rash include the following:

  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Flaking
  • Sensitivity
  • Blisters
  • Bumps
  • Scaly patches
  • Red or discolored patches
  • Cracks and dryness

How to treat winter rashes

Treating a winter rash is not experience and is quite easy, often requiring no prescription. If symptoms are severe or prolonged, however, medical treatment may be required.

The following treatments are excellent examples of winter rash relief:

Petroleum jelly

Forming a barrier defense against dry air, both indoors and out, petroleum jelly locks in the skin’s moisture. Petroleum jelly should be applied a few times a day, especially after showering or bathing and washing hands.


Find emollient-rich, sensitive formulas that are thick in consistency. These creams and lotions add moisture to skin and form a protective barrier against dry air, both warm and cold.

Natural oils

Oils found in nature, such as olive and coconut, can soothe irritated skin. Look for products with no additives that can cause dryness and be sure to apply these oils several times per day.

Vegetable shortening

The home-remedy version of natural oils, applying vegetable shortening may help some winter rash sufferers because of its thick, solid consistency. Apply after a shower or bath or before bed for best results.

Milk baths

While soothing, milk baths don’t particularly add any moisture. Use whole milk and dab on affected skin or add to a tub of warm water for a soothing soak. Don’t soak any longer than 10 minutes or you risk drying out your skin.

Oatmeal skin care products

Look for bath soaks and lotions that contain oatmeal, which can soothe irritated skin. Try adding finely ground oats to a warm bath, but again keep your soak to around 10 minutes only.


Severe winter rash may require a visit to your doctor and a prescription for a hydrocortisone topical cream or ointment. There are also over-the-counter cortisone lotions available to treat winter rash. Be sure to follow the amount and frequency that the manufacturer or your doctor has indicated for your condition.

Winter rash prevention

If you live in a cold climate and you're exposed to temperature extremes during the winter, try these prevention tips to avoid a winter rash:

Add moisture to the air

Use a humidifier, either portable or permanent, to add moisture to your living or office space. There is a wide selection of humidifiers available for any budget and environment.

Add moisture to your skin

At the first sign of winter dry skin, apply a rich moisturizer that not only forms a barrier on your skin to keep it from drying out but one that also adds moisture. Look for natural formulas that are fragrance-free, so they don’t have harsh, irritating chemical additives.

Avoid extreme temperatures

Don’t overheat your home, office or place where you spend the majority of your time. Dress in light layers of clothing to keep warm and avoid becoming overheated by heavy, scratchy fabrics such as wool or synthetics. Keep your bath or shower to 10 minutes and the water at a warm, rather than hot temperature.

Sensitive formulas

Look for soaps, lotions and makeup that are organic and formulated for sensitive skin. Ingredients such as goat’s milk, oatmeal, shea butter, glycerin and olive oil are great for dry skin and don’t have irritating chemical additives. Keep your selections fragrance-free and natural.

Cover up

Wear gloves when you go outside in the cold, dry air to protect your hands. Use rubber gloves when you wash dishes or use harsh cleaning products. Apply a moisture barrier after hand washing, especially if you must wash frequently.

Wear sunscreen

Protect yourself from sunburn even in the winter months by wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen formula that is rated with SPF 30 or more.

Avoid intense heat

Don’t sit in front of fireplaces or radiators that will expose your skin to intense heat or blowing hot air.

Bathe less frequently

Keep your showers or baths to once a day and the water in the lukewarm temperature range to avoid drying out your skin. Use mild, natural soaps and body washes and pat your skin dry instead of rubbing intensely. Apply a rich moisturizer immediately after patting skin dry and reapply throughout the day.

Know when to see a doctor

If your winter rash starts oozing or gets worse by spreading, contact your doctor right away.