Winter rash on your hands and face can cause the skin to become itchy, inflamed, and scaly. Here’s what causes the winter itch and how to manage it
As winter draws in, it’s not just the atmosphere that changes; our skin feels the shift too.
Whether it’s the lack of humidity or the harsh, icy winds, many of us suffer from irritating skin conditions like winter rash and winter itch during the colder months.
While these skin issues are common – affecting 10-15% of the population during colder months – they can be both physically uncomfortable or even painful, as well as take a toll on your emotions.
In our guide, we look at what causes winter rash and winter itch, why your skin gets worse in cold weather, and how to manage the symptoms.
Winter rash is a condition that’s characterised by itchy, inflamed, and sometimes scaly patches of skin. It’s not too dissimilar to eczema and, ironically, can feel a lot like heat rash.
However, unlike eczema which can appear all year round, winter rash tends to only rear its ugly head during winter months and is generally less chronic. It’s not just the cold weather that causes it, though. It can also happen at home when you start putting your heating on.
One of the key reasons for winter rash is the low humidity level in winter air. While your heating can also remove the humidity in the air at home.
Both can cause the skin to lose its natural moisture, or hinder its ability to keep hold of the moisture it does have.
FURTHER READING: Everything you need to know about your skin barrier
On a cellular level, our skin cells need a certain level of hydration to function properly.
Cold air has low humidity and is often dry. As a result, the air tries to draw moisture from wherever it can, including your skin. This can cause water molecules in the skin to evaporate – known as transepidermal water loss (TEWL) – and lead to the skin’s natural barrier becoming damaged.
Once this barrier is damaged, it can’t protect the skin as well against irritants and allergens.
At the same time, indoor heating systems can further reduce indoor air humidity levels making the condition worse. This is why you might find that your winter itch gets worse when you’re indoors. Your skin isn’t just battling the conditions outside but also the environment inside your home or office, without little let-up.
According to the skincare experts at Kiehl’s, “Colder temperatures dry out sensitive and dry skin even more, making it feel uncomfortable and itchy. As your skin barrier needs to stay hydrated to function and protect your body from environmental factors, you’ll want to layer up on ceramide-rich products and hydrating formulas in the winter months.
Winter itch is often considered a milder form of winter rash but is similarly characterised by itchy skin. This itching sensation also often feels worse in cold, dry air and indoor heating systems.
It’s important to differentiate between winter rash and eczema, as they are separate conditions that may appear similar but have different root causes and treatments.
Eczema is a chronic skin condition that can occur at any time of the year and is often related to other conditions like asthma and hay fever. On the other hand, winter rash is a seasonal condition that affects people during the colder months and is caused by environmental factors.
With a winter rash or winter itch, you can usually relieve the symptoms and sort out the problem by increasing the skin’s hydration. We explain more about how to do this in the sections below.
With eczema, there are treatments that help manage and ease the symptoms but it’s not easy to get rid of and it has other triggers than just cold air. You can read more in our guide to the best eczema treatments.
Skincare can play a big role when looking for how to manage winter rash and winter itch.
“We all know the basic purpose of a moisturiser; it pretty much does what it says on the tin,” the skincare experts at Kiehl’s continued. “Moisturising is particularly important in colder months as it acts like a topcoat for all your other skincare.
“To top up your skin’s hydration levels, adopt a layering approach with your formulas. Get an extra boost from serums, lotions, or mists, then lock in the benefits with a moisturiser. Layering multiple hydrating formulas is more effective than a single heavy application of one product, as it will create multiple barriers to water leaving your skin.” You can read more in our guide to what does moisturiser do.
Our product recommendations for winter rash and winter itch are below. If you usually have a normal skin type, you can use any of these creams and your preference will likely come down to the texture you prefer, or your budget.
£16 | BUY NOW
Best for: Dry skin
Best suited for severely dry skin, this cream from Eucerin is enriched with ceramides and natural moisturising factors. It helps to treat winter rash by giving immediate relief to irritation and should be applied to affected areas as needed. You can’t overuse this cream.
Get more recommendations in our best moisturiser for dry skin guide.
£16.80 | BUY NOW
Best for: Sensitive skin
This dermatologically tested cream contains colloidal oatmeal and is great for treating winter itch and winter rash. It provides long-lasting moisture and should be applied twice daily. Suited for all skin types but is particularly well suited to sensitive and easily irritated skin.
Get more recommendations in our best skincare for sensitive skin guide.
£9.99 | BUY NOW
Best for: Oily skin
The Inkey List Omega Water Cream is currently the winner in our best moisturiser for oily skin list. It’s an affordable, lightweight, runny cream that absorbs easily into the skin, without leaving a heavy or greasy feeling.
It contains an Omega Ceramide Complex, too, which helps strengthen the skin’s barrier, preventing water loss, boosting elasticity and helping with winter rash and winter itch.
You can read more about The Inkey List and see some of its other best products here; get more recommendations for the best moisturiser for oily skin, and you can also watch our TikTok review of The Inkey List’s Omega Water Cream.
FURTHER READING: Spotlight on The Inkey List
Beyond moisturiser, you can also do the following:
If you’re experiencing dry skin in the under-eye area, it’s worth investing in an eye cream. It’s not essential – many moisturisers work just as well on the skin around your eyes as they do on your face.
However, as the area around your eyes lacks the oil glands found elsewhere on your face, they’re usually the first to lose hydration and moisture. We recommend the CeraVe Eye Repair Cream. It combines ceramides and hyaluronic acid to repair dry and damaged skin, but also protects delicate skin and helps eradicate puffiness.
If you’re suffering from a winter itch or winter rash, you can also add a serum or a facial oil to your skincare routine to boost hydration and protection.
Serums tend to have ingredients with smaller molecules than moisturisers, meaning they can penetrate deeper into the skin. Oils are naturally occlusive, meaning they seal in all the moisture from the products previously applied.
Our favourite for winter rash and winter itch is the Elizavecca Milky Piggy Hyaluronic Acid Pure (£22). We’ve tested dozens of serums and this is the one we keep coming back to. It contains 97% hyaluronic acid – one of the highest concentrations of hyaluronic acid we’ve found – alongside water and it’s formulated to be as gentle and natural as possible.
This isn’t a cheap hyaluronic acid serum but it is good value for money because you get a huge bottle, and a little goes a really long way. Plus it has a really high concentration.
We explain more about the science of serums here, and outline the differences between different skin products in our: What’s the difference between skin serum, facial oil and moisturiser, and which one do you need?
Only because the sunny summer days are over for another year, the sun can still do a number on your skin.
“As UV exposure is the biggest cause of skin ageing, sunscreen is also essential even when the sun isn’t shining in the sky,” added Kiehl’s. “Wear a high broad-spectrum protection daily sunscreen to reduce the likelihood of fine lines and wrinkles from forming.”
Many SPF creams also add hydration so they’re a good weapon to have in your arsenal against the winter rash and winter itch. Our favourite is the Isntree Watery Sun Gel (£21).
We’ve tried a lot of face sunscreens over the years and this is the best because it’s lightweight and hydrating – thanks to eight different types of hyaluronic acid – while also offering broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays. In fact, when we’re in a rush we wear this sunscreen as both a moisturiser and SPF.
Get more recommendations in our sunscreen for face UK guide.
If you’re someone who likes to cosy up in long hot baths, this can deplete the skin’s natural moisture and make winter rash or winter itch worse.
Rehydrate with a body moisturiser that contains cocoa or shea butter because both ingredients are moisturising and non-greasy.
And, if you’re struggling with dry, cracked hands, you might need to add a hand cream to your routine, if you don’t use one already.
We recommend the Nursem Caring Hand Cream (£21). It’s gentle, and effective and comes in a fragranced, as well as a fragrance-free version. It helps to protect against and repair winter rash and winter itch as well as the appearance of dryness caused by frequent washing, industrial work, manual labour, neglect or exposure to harsh elements.
We have more product recommendations in our best hand cream guide, or check out our article: Suffering from dull winter hair and skin? These must-haves will leave it looking fresh, bright and healthy.
A humidifier can help offset the drying effects of your radiators being on full blast. It can also help with any winter coughs or colds, too.
If you can’t afford a humidifier, try to sleep with no or low heating on overnight. Your complexion, heating bills and the environment will all thank you.
Our bodies are made up of 70% water and even a small amount of dehydration can show up on the skin. Aim for around 1.5 litres a day.
This won’t just help with the winter rash and winter itch, but it can help stave off some of the signs of ageing and flush toxins out of the body, which will have a direct benefit on your skin’s texture.
Victoria is founder and editor-in-chief of mamabella, freelance journalist and Mum. She has a passion for empowering people to feel beautiful whatever their age, size, skin type and budget