how to treat dry winter skin while avoiding breakouts

It happens every year.

As the temperatures plunge down and freezing winds hit your face, your skin turns into a dry and flaky mess. Ugh.

You throw an arsenal of facial oils, balms and rich creams at it to try and fix it, but now your skin’s breaking out like crazy, too. Double ugh.

Isn’t there a way to treat dry winter skin while avoiding breakouts?! Yes. Here’s how:

Why Does Skin Become Dry In Winter?

Did you know your skin has a shield?

Its outermost layer acts like a protective barrier that keeps moisture in and germs out.

Problem is, this protective barrier is always under attack. UV rays, harsh skincare products, over cleansing and overexfoliating can all disrupt your skin’s protective barrier.

The colder winter climates is the biggest culprit. Between the unrelenting winds, the low temperatures outside and the constant indoor heating in your home and offices, your skin’s barrier is battered 24/7.

That’s why it breaks down that much faster in winter.

Rich moisturisers can create a barrier of their own on your skin, offering an extra layer of protection. But, if your skin is prone to breakouts, they may clog your pores and turn your face into a pimple fest.

You need to walk a tight balance to repair your skin’s protective barrier without clogging your pores. Here’s how:

NOTE: If your dry skin isn’t prone to breakouts, disregard this post and check out The Best Skincare Routine For Dry Skin instead.

For rich creams/balms/oils to break you out, your skin must produce excess oil. If this isn’t the case, you’ve got nothing to fear from them.

Struggling to put together a cost-effective routine that banishes acne? Download your FREE “The Ordinary Anti-Acne Skincare Routine” to get started:

The Best Skincare Routine For Dry Winter Skin Prone To Breakouts

1. Gentle, pH Balanced Cleanser

If you’ve got dry winter skin prone to breakouts, cleansing is probably the most dangerous step in your skincare routine.

Harsh cleansers with irritating ingredients (yes, sodium laurYL sulphate, I’m looking at you) or a high pH strip too much oil from your skin and disrupt its protective barrier, leaving it as dry as sandpaper.

How do you know you’re using a harsh cleanser? Simple. If your skin feels tight and uncomfortable after cleansing, your cleanser is too harsh.

Switch to something gentler. A low pH foaming cleanser or cream cleanser are your best bets here. They remove all traces of dirt and makeup without drying out your skin.

Best picks:

  • Corsx low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($11.00): pH 5.5. Available at Sokoglam and YesStyle.
  • Paula’s Choice Moisture Boost Cleanser One Step Face Cleanser ($18.00): pH 5.5. Available at Paula’s Choice.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser ($18.00): pH 5.5. Available at Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice. 

Related: Why You Should Switch To Low pH Cleansers Now

2. Exfoliate The Right Way

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I recommend glycolic acid for dry skin.

The smallest member of the AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) family, glycolic acid dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together so they can slough off faster AND hydrate skin to boot.

But once breakouts enter the mix, you need to switch to salicylic acid, pronto. Salicylic acid dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together, too.

But, unlike glycolic acid, salicylic acid penetrates deep inside your pores and removes all the crap that’s clogging them up and giving you those nasty breakouts.

If you really, really, really want to keep using glycolic, then find an exfoliant that has BOTH acids. I can’t stress it enough: salicylic acid is the ONLY thing that can keep your pores clean from within. Use it.

Best picks:

Related: Glycolic Acid VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Is Right For You?

3. Use A Hydrating Serum

Your skin can never get enough moisture in winter.

As soon as the temperatures start to fall, add a hyaluronic acid serum to your skincare routine, pronto.

Hyaluronic acid is a moisture magnet that can attract moisture from the air into the skin and keep it in. It’s so powerful, it can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water.

The best part? It works well both in high and low humidity conditions.

For best results, pick a serum with several forms of hyaluronic acid. You see, hyaluronic acid itself is too big to penetrate your skin. It sits on its surface, hydrating only the superficial layers.

Smaller molecular weights of hyaluronic acid (that’s hyaluronic acid chopped down into smaller pieces) can penetrate deeper into the skin, keeping every layer supple and hydrated.

Best picks:

Related: Why You Should Add Hyaluronic Acid To Your Skincare Routine In Winter

4. Use An Oil-Free Moisturizer

Natural oils and butters (think Shea, cocoa, coconut & co) are so moisturising because they create a barrier on the skin that keeps moisture in. If moisture stays in, your skin won’t dry out.

Problem is, if your skin produces a little too much sebum, the rich textures of these oils and butters can clog the pores and give you breakouts.

Enter oil-free moisturisers. They use moisture magnets like hyaluronic acid to attract moisture from the skin + a mix of synthetic emollients to lock them in. Their lighter textures give your skin all the moisture it needs without getting trapped in the pores and clogging them up.

Bonus points if your moisturiser contains what Paula Begoun calls skin-identical ingredients. This is stuff includes ceramides, urea and cholesterol, all substances that make up your skin’s natural protective barrier.

By adding them back into your skin, you’re patching up the holes the dry winter weather made in your protective barrier.

Best picks:

Related: What Are Oil-Free Moisturisers And Why Should You Use Them?

5. If You Must Use An Oil

Is your oil-free moisturiser not doing the job as well as you’d hoped? It may be time to add a facial oil to your skincare routine to seal that moisture in.

The best oils for dry winter skin prone to breakouts are those that resemble human sebum. Your skin instantly recognises them so they sink in quickly. Plus, they trick your skin into thinking it’s pumped out enough oil already.

Squalane oil and jojoba oil are the oils that are pretty much identical to human sebum. I also like rosehip oil because it helps treat acne, too.

FYI, out of these 3, squalane oil is the only one that’s non-comedogenic. This doesn’t mean the others will clog your pores. They usually don’t. But everyone skin’s different so if yours doesn’t respond well to jojoba or rosehip, go with squalane.

Best picks:

Related: What Are The Best Oils For Breakouts Prone Skin?