Windburn Overview


Man with excessive sunblock and large goggles on the slopes. See more pictures of skin problems.
©iStockphoto.com/Nina Allerton

You may think that your skin is safe from the elements once swimsuit season ends and the air gets cold. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Most people know that the sun can still harm your skin in the winter, but there's another environmental factor to watch out for -- the wind.

Your skin has an outer layer made of molecules called lipids; they keep your skin moisturized and protect it from the sun and wind. When the air is cold, however, your skin contains less moisture. As a result, the elements can break down these lipids and harm your skin more easily. The combination of wind friction on exposed areas of the skin and ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure -- which can occur even on cloudy days -- can cause the redness and skin irritation commonly known as windburn [source: Baumann].

Although windburn most frequently targets the face, it can affect any exposed area of skin. The stronger and colder the winds, the more susceptible skin becomes to windburn. Windburn is especially common among people involved in winter sports like skiing and skating. The increased movement and possible glare from the sun causes more wind friction and sun exposure, which can lead to uncomfortable chafing. You're especially likely to get windburn if you get off a plane and head out into the cold [source: Baumann]. People in warm climates don't often get windburn because they aren't usually exposed to the cold, dry air that causes it.

A windburn may feel like sunburn, and because sunburns are still possible in the winter (especially for those who play outdoor winter sports), the two irritations may coincide. Luckily, the long-term effects of windburn are much less severe than those of sunburn. If you want to find out how to prevent and treat windburn, head to the next page.

Preventing Windburn

Since windburn can affect any exposed skin, the simplest way to prevent it is to cover up. When you brave the elements in the winter, wear long pants, a jacket, gloves and a hat. You may want to invest in a ski mask that protects your entire face, especially if you're involved in recreational activities. And since UV rays shine year-round, you'll need sunscreen to protect your skin.

Your face, neck, hands and ears get windburned -- and sunburned -- most often in the winter. The sun can reflect up to 80 percent of UV rays back at you when it bounces off snow [source: US Air Force]. What's more, cold winds can exacerbate even the smallest sunburn. To protect any exposed areas, use a sunscreen and moisturizer that won't irritate your skin; pay special attention to the underside of your chin and neck, since light reflected from snow can burn the tender skin there. The sunscreen also creates a layer of moisture that will protect you against the wind [source: US Air Force].

Remember that your skin isn't the only part of your body adversely affected by the cold weather: make sure you protect your eyes and lips as well. Wear goggles or sunglasses that protect eyes from UV rays and apply lip balm as needed.

Finally, take some preventative measures in your skin care regimen before you head out into the cold. Don't use anti-wrinkle creams that contain retinal, anti-hydroxy acids or salicylic acid for five days before your planned outing [source: Baumann]. These chemicals remove oils and dry out your skin -- which is exactly what you don't need when you're facing sun and wind exposure. You should also avoid skin treatments like chemical peels or microdermabrasion for seven days before you head outdoors [source: Baumann]. If you take these precautions, you'll have a better chance of withstanding the effects of the sun and wind.

If you didn't take precautions this time around, read on to learn about the best ways to treat windburn.

Treating Windburn

Although windburn is often accompanied by sunburn, the good news is that its lasting effects on your skin aren't nearly as serious as those associated with sunburn. In fact, windburn should fade on its own in a few days. Here are some tips to help you ease the irritation.

Treat the surface of your skin by applying aloe vera or another moisturizer several times each day. Since the wind and sun have stripped the lipids necessary to keep your skin moisturized, you'll need to get that moisture from an outside source. The skin affected by windburn may peel as it does when irritated by sunburn, but keeping it moisturized can make you feel more comfortable [source: Health.com].

You can also take medication to reduce pain or soreness associated with severe windburn. Aspirin and anti-inflammatory medicines can help speed up the healing process.

Other parts of your body, such as your eyes and lips, may have been affected by the wind as well. Treat lips with a moisturizing lip balm and use eye drops to help soothe eye irritation. Keep the affected areas away from fires or heaters, and avoid taking hot showers for a few days -- all these actions dry out your skin. If your skin is still irritated after a few days, you should see your doctor. You may have a similar condition called rosacea.

Although windburn can be painful, the condition itself is preventable. The next time you plan outdoor winter activities, take the necessary steps to protect yourself from the wind and the sun. You'll be happy you did.

To learn more about skin conditions, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources:

  • Baumann, Leslie. "Take the Sting Out of Windburn." Yahoo! Health. February 29, 2008. (Accessed 08/04/09).http://health.yahoo.com/experts/skintype/11491/take-the-sting-out-of-windburn/
  • Geok Seng, Raymond Lee. "Top 7 Ways to Treat and Prevent Windburn." ezinearticles.com. (Accessed 08/04/09).http://ezinearticles.com/?Top-7-Tips-To-Treat-And-Prevent-Windburn&id=849694
  • Gibson, Lawrence E. "Chapped lips: What is the best remedy?" MayoClinic.com. October 4, 2008. (Accessed 08/04/09).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/chapped-lips/AN01440
  • Health.com. "Cold Temperature Exposure." Healthwise. (Accessed 8/10/2009) http://www.health.com/health/library/topic/0,,colde_aa54252,00.html
  • MayoClinic.com. "Rosacea." (Accessed 08/04/09).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/rosacea/DS00308
  • MayoClinic.com. "Wrinkles." (Accessed 08/05/09).http://mayoclinic.com/health/wrinkle-creams/SN00010
  • Rosacea.org: The National Rosacea Society. "What Is Rosacea?" (Accessed 08/04/09).http://www.rosacea.org/index.php
  • Time. "Medicine: Windburn to Sunburn." October 12, 1936. (Accessed 8/10/2009) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,848654,00.html
  • US Air Force. "Time for Sunscreen and Sweaters." January 10, 2008. (Accessed 8/10/2009) http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123081828