How to prevent and treat both winter rash and ashy skin

Sabina Muminović Last updated: 27 October 2023

Winter rash and ashy skin can be quite annoying. Luckily you can prevent both at the same time and keep your skin smooth and healthy. Learn how!

Winter is coming. And as the temperatures drop the chance of getting a winter rash increases. Without treatment and certain lifestyle changes winter rash can last for quite a few months. Scratching the itchy rash may cause it to crack and bleed which makes you more vulnerable to bacterial infections and you don’t want that.

Fortunately, there are various ways to prevent or treat a winter rash. And while you’re at it, you should know that these same tips and lifestyle changes can also prevent ashy skin (with one important difference, which we’ll mention later). Both issues have a lot to do with dry skin, therefore you can solve two annoying skin problems at once!

Your skin appearance is largely related to environmental factors, genetic factors and nutrition, so that’s what we’re going to discuss. First, we’ll define what a winter rash and ashy skin are and talk about how genetics influence them as we think knowing a bit more about your skin can be beneficial. However, if you’re eager to get to the preventive measures and treatment you can skip the first part via the table of contents below.

Alright, let’s see how you can take care of your skin.

In this article
What is a winter rash and what is ashy skin?
What causes a winter rash?
What causes ashy skin?
Do your genes play a role?
How to prevent winter rashes and ashy skin?
Use a humidifier
Turn down the heat (at night)
Don’t take hot baths or hot showers
Avoid harsh soaps
Wear clothes made from breathable and natural fibres
Protect your skin when you’re outdoors
Drink plenty of water
Treating a winter rash and ashy skin
Moisturize and do it properly
Use natural oils (but not olive oil)
Got milk? Use it.
Adjust your diet
The ashy-skin-only tip: Exfoliate regularly
When should you see a doctor because of a winter rash or ashy skin?
Prevention is key and a DNA test can help

What is a winter rash and what is ashy skin?

A winter rash is an area of irritated, dry skin. Can you guess why it’s called a winter rash? Yep, it usually develops during the winter, but it can also appear during the autumn if the weather is cold enough. It’s quite a common condition and it often recurs year after year. It also happens to people that have perfectly healthy-looking skin during the rest of the year.

A winter rash may include any of the following symptoms: redness, swelling, itching, flaking, skin sensitivity, bumps and/or blisters. Sometimes winter rash will impact a single area of your body (usually legs, arms, or hands), other times it may be more widespread and present in different areas at the same time.

Ashy skin is also a patch of dry skin. It’s called ashy because of the way it can look on people with a darker skin tone. However, it can occur in people of all races and skin tones.

Ashy skin usually feels rough or bumpy, has thin, cracked lines (especially on the knees or elbows) and looks greyish or ashy. Ashy skin might also be flaking or peeling. It most commonly appears on a bit more exposed parts of your body – arms, elbows, lower legs, knees, and heels.

What causes a winter rash?

Your skin has an outer layer, called a lipid barrier, that contains natural oils and dead skin cells. While that might not sound great, this layer actually protects your skin and “traps” water under it, which helps to keep your skin moisturized, soft and smooth.

Anything that damages or removes this protective layer can have a negative impact on your skin. Cold air, low humidity, and windy weather can quite easily strip this layer and expose your skin, which allows moisture to escape. Turning up the heat at home can also expose and dry your skin.

That’s why winter conditions are “ideal” for developing a rash. However, these are not the only causes.

The following can also expose your skin and increase your chances of getting a rash:

  • Over-washing with harsh soaps or using harsh detergents when washing your clothes.
  • Hot showers, as they soften your skin and remove its protective, oily layer.
  • Sunburns, as sun’s UV rays are still potent and more intense at higher altitudes. Snow also reflects up to 80% of UV light, so you should take care and protect your skin if you enjoy skiing, snowboarding or other alpine sports.
  • A bacterial or viral infection.
  • A latex allergy.
  • Stress and fatigue.

You’re also more likely to develop a winter rash if you have a history of certain skin conditions. Ironically, winter weather can trigger some of those conditions.

  • Dermatitis, which causes dry, itchy skin patches. It refers to any inflammation of the skin and can be a result of poor circulation, harsh chemicals, an allergen, or infection.
  • Rosacea, which is a bacterial infection that causes small, red bumps and skin rashes.
  • Cold urticaria, that causes swollen, itchy bumps which last for 1 to 2 hours after you’ve been exposed to the cold.
  • Psoriasis, which causes skin flares that are triggered by cold, dry weather, smoking, stress, and certain infections.
  • Eczema, which usually causes itchy red rashes on the arm folds and back of knees.
  • Asthma can also increase your chances of getting winter rashes.

What causes ashy skin?

Ashy skin occurs because of two main reasons.

The first one is the same as with winter rashes – the skin’s protective layer is removed which causes the skin to lose moisture and to become rough and flaky. The causes of this kind of ashy skin are the same as listed above – including winter weather.

The second reason for ashy skin is a bit different. As the body produces new skin cells, dead skin cells are normally shed from the surface of your skin. New cells push them off. But sometimes these dead skin cells accumulate and form dry scales that don’t properly exfoliate. These flakes form a barrier that makes the skin unable to absorb moisture and makes it look dull. That’s also ashy skin.

Do your genes play a role?

Your genes can impact the natural hydration ability of your skin. E.g. unfavourable copies of AQP3 gene can reduce your skin’s ability to absorb moisture.

Aquaporin-3 (AQP3) is a protein, encoded by the AQP3 gene, that forms pores in the membrane of skin cells through which water can be transported more rapidly inside the cell. AQP3 regulates the movement of water and glycerol molecules across cell membranes, while preventing the passage of ions and other solutes. AQP3 is therefore an essential hydration-regulating element of our skin and is fundamental in general skin hydration, skin elasticity, wound healing, and epidermal biosynthesis.

Having unfavourable copies of AQP3 gene indicates reduced (natural) hydration ability of your skin.

Another process which can lead to dry skin is called glycation. It’s a process during which excess glucose molecules bind to the collagen and elastin fibres. Together with its end products (glycation end products (AGEs)), glycation represents one of the main threats to our skin. It negatively affects skin’s structural integrity and it’s the leading cause of skin ageing.

Glycated skin fibres become less elastic and have reduced the ability to self-repair. This can lead to dry skin, skin laxity and can cause the formation of wrinkles.

Our cells are protected against AGEs by the glyoxalase 1 enzyme, which converts AGEs into less toxic molecules. A variant within the GLO1 gene, which encodes for the glyoxalase 1 enzyme can cause the enzyme to be less effective.

Knowing what are your genetic predispositions can help you anticipate how your skin is going to react to certain conditions and can help you take the right preventive measures. We’ll talk a bit more about that at the end of the article.

Now, let’s see how you can prevent and treat winter rash and ashy skin.

How to prevent winter rashes and ashy skin?

There are quite a few things you can do to prevent winter rashes and ashy skin. In both cases, the goal is to protect your skin and keep it from getting dehydrated and dry.

The line between prevention and treatment is a bit blurry. As you’ll see, you can do something to prevent a winter rash from appearing, but you can also use the same advice to treat it.

Putting lotion on hands with eczema scar

Here are some preventive measures and lifestyle changes that’ll help you prevent both winter rashes and ashy skin:

Use a humidifier

During the winter you’ll probably spend a lot of time in your home. Use a humidifier to combat the dry heat of your heating system. A humidifier adds moisture back into the air. There are whole-house, single-room, and personal humidifiers available.

Keep in mind that the humidifier adds moisture to the air you are breathing, so keep it clean. Change the water every 3 days, use distilled water if possible, and clean the humidifier regularly to avoid bacteria and fungi growth.

Turn down the heat (at night)

If you can, turn down the heat during the day. But even turning down the heat at night can help your skin recover a bit, especially if you combine this with a humidifier on a low setting in your bedroom.

Don’t take hot baths or hot showers

Use warm better or, even better, cold water. If you absolutely must take a bath, use warm water, and add some moisturizing products specifically made for bathing. For example, there are moisturizing oatmeal products that can be added to the bath. Limit your bathing time to max of 15 minutes.

If you have a winter rash or ashy skin, don’t rub with a towel after you’re done with your bath or shower. Pat it dry. Patting your skin is better for keeping its protective layer intact.

If you shower really often, consider cutting it down during the winter when you generally don’t sweat as much as during the summer.

Avoid harsh soaps

Look for moisturizing, non-foaming soaps, cleansers, and body washes. Avoid products that contain alcohols, parabens, synthetic dyes, or fragrances.

Natural soaps made from glycerin, goat milk, shea butter, or natural oils are a good choice.

Don’t forget to avoid harsh soaps in your laundry detergents as well. Look for detergents that are meant for sensitive skin.

Wear clothes made from breathable and natural fibres

Some fibres can irritate your skin and cause rashes (e.g. nylon, wool, polyester). Avoid them and wear clothes made from natural, breathable materials such as (organic) cotton and hemp. Don’t wear too many layers as they may cause overheating, which leads to flare-ups.

Make sure that your linens are also made from breathable materials as you don’t want to sweat during the night.

Protect your skin when you’re outdoors

Always wear gloves when you go outside in cold weather. Try to expose as little skin as possible to the cold and the wind. A scarf can help a lot.

Don’t forget about sunburn when you’re outdoors, especially in the mountains. Apply sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher.

Drink plenty of water

Oh yes, the most general tip possible. 🙂 However, during the winter we often don’t feel thirsty, yet keeping hydrated will really help your skin. Drink at least 8 glasses of water per day.

Treating a winter rash and ashy skin

Fortunately, treatment of winter rashes and ashy skin is quite simple, inexpensive and usually doesn’t need to involve a medical professional. There’s one big difference between treating ashy skin and a winter rash which we’ll mention at the end of this chapter.

Here’s what you need to do to treat winter rashes and ashy skin:

Moisturize and do it properly

Moisturizing can be a preventive measure or treatment. Moisturizers help lock moisture into your skin, but not all moisturizers are made the same.

Use body cream rather than lotion during the winter as creams have stronger emollients that will lock moisture into your skin for a longer time.

Man in a bathroom putting body lotion after a bath

Moisturize your skin at least three times per day. Ensure that your products include ingredients in one of three different classes to help promote skin hydration: humectant, emollients, and occlusive. One of the best humectants is hyaluronic acid. It holds water molecules on the surface of your skin to keep hydrated.

Lipid barrier comparison on healthy vs dry skin

You can also try to find lotions or creams that contain ceramides if your skin’s lipid barrier has been stripped by harsh weather or any other means. Formulas that contain ceramides mimic the skin’s natural moisturizing system and will help with rebuilding your protective layer which is going to prevent continuous water loss.

Don’t get products containing harmful sulfates. Sulfates strip your skin of natural oils and by now you know you need them to protect your skin. Also avoid products that include harsh alcohols like SD alcohol, denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. These products can also dehydrate your skin.

Rather look for natural products as some of the best nourishment comes from food-based ingredients, like eggs and avocados. Look for creams that use pure essential oils or herbal extracts. Plant-based ingredients like these are great for ashy skin. You can also add moisturisers like jojoba oil or rosehip seed oil into your regular cream.

Petroleum jelly is also a good option, especially for treating winter eczema. It’s thick and acts as a barrier to help seal moisture into your skin. If you don’t like the idea of using petroleum products, you can try out petroleum substitutes.

Use natural oils (but not olive oil)

Some natural oils contain nutrients and minerals that can replenish irritated skin, relieve inflammation, and repair your skin’s lipid barrier. You can use a moisturizer that includes these oils, opt for a concentrated face or body oil that you can apply right after you shower, or simply use a high-quality oil in small doses as you’d use a lotion.

  • Coconut oil can improve the skin’s barrier function and promote healing.
  • Safflower oil is ideal for soothing irritated skin as it contains large amounts of linoleic acid.
  • Avocado oil contains vitamins C, D, and E and is therefore excellent for the nourishment of dry or damaged skin.

What about olive oil? While it has anti-inflammatory properties, it also promotes water loss in the skin and therefore reduces the skin’s barrier function. That’s why people with dry skin should avoid using olive oil on their skin. Don’t worry, you can still use it when cooking. As you’ll see, it’s even recommendable.

Got milk? Use it.

Milk is actually a good moisturiser as it includes water, fat and proteins that can replenish the lost natural moisturising factors of your dry skin. Dip a clean washcloth into whole milk and dab it on the affected area of your body. If you’re feeling more adventurous you can add milk to your warm (not hot!) bath and soak in it for 10 minutes.

Adjust your diet

Your diet has a significant impact on your skin’s health. Lack of micronutrients leads to lack of moisture. Eating more salmon, avocado, papaya, olive oil and nuts during the winter months will help you to hydrate and rejuvenate dry skin.

The ashy-skin-only tip: Exfoliate regularly

Remember how we mentioned that ashy skin can be a buildup of dead skin cells? That’s when exfoliating helps. Try using a gentle exfoliant two to three times a week to get rid of dead skin cells on the affected area. For your face, we suggest looking for a well-formulated chemical exfoliant serum that contains an AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid), BHA (beta-hydroxy acid), or PHA (poly-hydroxy acid). If your skin isn’t very sensitive or acne-prone, you can also use a physical exfoliant like a grainy scrub.

Same with the rest of your body – look for a shower gel that contains AHA/BHA/PHA or opt for a body scrub instead if you don’t have sensitive skin.

Exfoliating doesn’t help with winter rashes. On the contrary, it can make them worse. Your skin on the affected area is already exposed and the problem there is the lack of the protective layer, not the buildup of dead skin cells.

Ashy skin on the elbow


When should you see a doctor because of a winter rash or ashy skin?

Both conditions are usually not serious enough to be classified as a serious medical problem. However, if the symptoms don’t go away after you’ve tried the treatments mentioned above or if the affected area becomes painful, you should see a dermatologist or your personal doctor.

A dermatologist will examine you and recommend additional tests (if necessary) to rule out or confirm possible skin conditions. You might undergo patch testing for allergies, genetic testing for certain skin conditions, or a skin biopsy.

It’s also not impossible to mistake signs of something else for ashy skin or a winter rash. It’s a good idea to see a dermatologist if:

  • The rash is accompanied by a fever, sore throat, or joint pain.
  • You started taking new medications and skin rashes are not listed among possible side effects.
  • There are areas of swelling or extreme tenderness, which might be signs of an infection.

Prevention is key and a DNA test can help

The best way of avoiding skin problems like winter rashes and ashy skin is to take good care of your skiing and prevent them from appearing.

While general tips that we listed certainly help, it’s even better to know exactly what your skin needs. After all, studies have revealed that up to 60% of the skin ageing variation between individuals can be attributed to genetic factors, while the remaining 40% is due to non-genetic factors like sudden temperature changes, prolonged exposure to solar radiation, harsh soaps and malnutrition.

If you want to know more about genetic factors that influence your skin and want to learn exactly what to do to keep it as healthy as possible, we invite you to take a look at MyLifestyle DNA test. You’ll discover your predispositions for skin ageing, elasticity, hydration, sensitivity, cellulite, and much more.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to receive more advice related to your wellbeing and genetics, subscribe to our newsletter below.


Share this article on