Nothing much blooms in winter, but pimples may be an exception.
A 2015 study of New England acne patients found the percentage of them who enjoyed a clear complexion was greatest during summer and fall. Winter, on the other hand, tended to be a rough season; rates of moderate-to-severe acne leaped 11% among the study participants in winter compared to summer.
One reason your skin tends to act up in cold weather may have to do with sebum, a type of oil that the small glands of the skin secrete. Sebum helps keep your skin properly moist and supple, but too much can cause the cells in your skin to stick together. This can lead to clogged pores and breakouts, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Your face’s “T-zone”—basically, your forehead, nose and chin—contains more of these sebum-producing glands than almost any other part of your body, which is why this area is prone to pimples. The dryer the conditions, the more sebum your skin will produce, and the more likely you are to suffer clogged pores and breakouts. Winter tends to be the driest time of the year, and so even people who typically have a clear complexion may notice a few more blemishes than usual.
For people with acne, inflammation is also a concern. “The cold and dryness that comes with cold temperatures can cause inflammation, which is one of the main pathogenic factors for acne formation,” says Dr. Arielle Nagler, an assistant professor of dermatology at New York University’s Langone Health. She’s quick to add that this isn’t true for everyone; some struggle more in sweaty summer conditions than in dry winter ones. But cold, dry air exposure is one of many triggers that can harm the skin’s barrier and promote inflammation—already a problem for acne patients—and therefore induce a breakout.
Winter conditions may present some additional challenges. There’s some evidence that ultraviolet light exposure has an effect on the body’s production of different types of immune cells, as well as on the populations of bacteria that live on the skin’s surface. In winter, when UV light exposure tends to be low, the resulting bacterial and immune system shifts may make acne breakouts more common.
The shock of cold weather can also promote acne, says Dr. Adam Friedman, a professor of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Cold exposure is a form of physical stress. “For anyone with a chronic inflammatory disease of the skin”—that includes acne, eczema, rosacea and others—“stress will increase that inflammation,” Friedman says. Especially at the start of the winter season when your body isn’t accustomed to chilly temps, the threat of a breakout may be greatest, he says. (Just in time for the holidays!)
What can you do about winter skin woes, apart from catching a plane to the Caribbean?
Oil-free skin moisturizers can help, Friedman says. Apply them to damp skin—for example, right after you get out of the shower—and they can lock in moisture and prevent your skin from overreacting to the stresses of dry winter weather. He also recommends covering your face with a scarf or some other form of protection when you’re outdoors. Cold and windy conditions can draw moisture out of your skin and also promote inflammation.
Nagler recommends using a mild skin cleanser and avoiding all exfoliating scrubs. Exfoliators can worsen the dryness caused by winter conditions.
Also, if you’re taking any medications for your acne, don’t stop, Friedman says. Switching up your skin care routines can make things worse. He also cautions against over-washing. It may be tempting to clean your skin more frequently to try to prevent breakouts, but this will only exacerbate the drying effects of winter, he says.
One final consideration: the holiday season can be stressful. Worrying and other forms of emotional stress can also trigger a breakout. Making time for activities that mellow you out—stuff like exercise, yoga and meditation—may ease your anxiety and help you avoid stress pimples.