The Skin Care Ingredients You Should Avoid In The Winter, According To Experts

Certain ingredients we think are helping us can actually damage the skin, especially in the colder months.
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As the weather gets colder, our skin care routine should reflect that; by supporting the skin’s barrier and keeping the moisture in the skin, we can keep our face healthy and moisturised.

The colder weather in winter, paired with indoor heating, can have serious effects on our skin. Add to that the drop in humidity and an increase in wind, and you’ve got an equation that’ll suck all the moisture out of the skin and leave it feeling red, irritated and flaky. This is roughest for people with dry skin, but even if you’re on the oily side you’ll need to adjust your skin care routine accordingly.

But certain ingredients we think are helping us can actually damage the skin, especially in winter, when the skin’s barrier can be compromised because of dryness. Experts warn that a number of ingredients should be avoided, or at the very least, that care should be taken with their use. HuffPost spoke to three board-certified dermatologists to find out more.

Ingredients to avoid (or be cautious with) in the winter


Exfoliating the skin too often can leave it feeling dry, rough and scaling. Acids are great if you’re after a smoother texture, firmer skin and clearer pores, but heed this warning.

“They not only remove dead cells but also the moisture-trapping, healthy skin oils that reside between our dead cells in the outermost stratum corneum [the skin’s top layer],” said Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, a Miami-based, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare.

“Acids are the class of ingredients that we must be cautious about in winter skin care. This will include acids like glycolic and lactic and retinoids, especially retinoic acid, aka tretinoin,” Ciraldo added.

“Chemical exfoliants (like glycolic and salicylic acid) can irritate and dry the skin, especially if using high concentrations or applying too frequently,” said Dr. Margarita Lolis, a New-Jersey based board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon.

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Physical exfoliators, like scrubs that include little beads, aren’t that great either, explained Dr. Carmen Castilla, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist at New York Dermatology Group and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“Chemical exfoliators,” on the other hand, “can compound dryness by temporarily disrupting the skin barrier and increasing transepidermal water loss (loss of water through the skin),” Castilla said.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) should be used less frequently in winter months, Ciraldo explained, as they strip the upper layer of the skin that contains healthy oils. This is particularly true for people with dry, normal or combination skin. If you have oily skin that’s not prone to dryness in winter, you can continue using your acids as normal.


Despite their many positive effects on the skin, retinoids can be very irritating, especially in winter.

Retinoids work by increasing the skin’s turnover, which is how quickly skin cells are replaced by fresh ones. “Retinoids increase collagen and elastin production, the supportive structures of the skin and important for the prevention of fine lines and laxity. It can help decrease brown discolouration and repair the effects of UV damage,” Castilla said.

As the humidity drops, the skin becomes dryer, so retinoids can be even more irritating by causing dryness, flakiness, redness and burning, Lolis said. “Retinoids predispose you to dry flaky skin,” she added.

“Anyone prone to eczema flares and dry skin in the winter months should be careful while using retinoids as the weather changes,” Castilla added.

Ethyl alcohol or denatured alcohol

Often used in toners or some serums, alcohol can be drying in the long term in colder weather.

“It can strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to dryness and irritation. If you are using an alcohol-based toner, make sure to switch to a gentler one,” Lolis said.

“[Alcohol] is sometimes used to lessen barrier function for the penetration of higher molecular weight (bigger) actives, including hyaluronic acid,” Ciraldo warned.

Benzoyl peroxide

You may know this ingredient for its acne-fighting properties and it’s often found in face washes (like Panoxyl) and some specialised creams. Benzoyl peroxide works as an antiseptic to kill acne-causing bacteria, while also minimising excess oil, and it’s particularly suitable for inflammatory acne.

“However, it may be highly irritating, especially in colder months and their use may be associated with redness, burning, dryness, and flakiness,” Lolis said.

How to support the skin’s moisture barrier in winter

A thicker moisturiser and a more hydrating creamy cleanser are the first steps when it comes to supporting your skin in the colder weather. This can also help with the dryness caused by the various ingredients above.

“Using a thicker, more emollient cream will help protect your skin barrier from the winter weather and lock in moisture. Look for moisturisers with hyaluronic acid, ceramides or glycerin,” Castilla said.

In terms of retinoids, you can adjust the frequency of use or pick a product with retinol instead. Alternatively, both Lolis and Castilla recommended bakuchiol, which some studies show may offer a similar result without irritation.

If you find chemical exfoliants irritating, Lolis mentioned you can switch to a polyhydroxy acid (PHA) product or lactic acid, which is a gentle AHA.

You could also alternate the use of AHAs with enzyme exfoliators like pomegranate, Ciraldo suggested, picking a product with a lower concentration of active ingredients or reduce the usage.

Castilla also recommended using a humidifier: “The winter air, combined with the lack of humidity in most heating systems will sap the moisture from your skin. Using a humidifier in your house or apartment can help.”

Protecting your lips is also essential in winter, as well as wearing your sunscreen, particularly if it snows. The snow amplifies the sun and the UV rays, so sunburns are common in these conditions.