Common Tread

Ask the doc: How to prevent winter windburnt skin

Jan 03, 2018

It’s winter, it’s cold, and the days are often marked by low humidity. A welcome relief from hot, hazy, and humid “Triple H” days of my Philadelphia summer, for sure, but it brings its own challenges.

If you ride through the winter (like me), your skin — in particular the skin of your face and neck — is at risk of injury. That’s true even if you have a full-face helmet. To understand how that happens, let’s look at your skin.

layers of skin
This graphic shows the various layers of your skin.

Normal skin has three important layers: epidermis (live skin cells and sloughing dead ones), dermis (connective tissue, blood vessels, nerves, hair follicles, and sweat glands) and the hypodermis (contains fat and connective tissue and anchors your skin to the rest of the body). The epidermis makes new skin cells, provides a waterproof barrier, and gives your skin its color. It is the most vulnerable layer to injury from low temperature and low humidity. Both of these are made more injurious when the air whips past your skin when you ride at speed.

Clearly, this is more pronounced if you are wearing a half or three-quarter helmet and your face is exposed. However, not infrequently I see riders with full helmets riding with the visor up at least part of the time while they unfog their glasses (guilty as charged), cool down, listen to what is outside, or just enjoy the breeze. Even having your chin vent open can drive this process. Think of this like climbing Everest and exposing your face to the really dry wind that whips around you in the cold. Not a really good plan.

So what, you ask? This creates windburn, an injury that is characterized by inflammation and relates to drying out the natural oils of the skin. This reduces the flexibility of your skin and can create microfractures of the epidermis as your face moves. Pain, itching, peeling and even deep skin damage can follow. Lips that get moistened may be particularly vulnerable as the wet covering rapidly evaporates in the wind, lowering tissue temperature and drying out the superficial layers even more quickly than if they started out dry. In fact, repetitive injury has been linked to conditions such as skin cancer.

The association with skin cancer may be more related to the lack of UV protection instead of the windburn itself. While UV exposure during the winter is less than that of the summer, skin injury from windburn may make your skin more susceptible to the effects of unchecked UV radiation.

The good news is that all of this is preventable with moisturizers. Yes, men, moisturizers are for you, too, and you don’t have to resort to expensive cosmetics with a lot of fragrance. You could go that way, if you want, but there are “manly” alternatives.

Many moisturizers already incorporate sunscreen. Products with aloe, cocoa butter, coconut oil, rose, and magnesium are all helpful. Since windburn is an injury of the superficial layers, avoid anything that is designed to strip off skin layers (i.e. exfoliant). The goal is to hydrate your skin to prevent injury, or if you are already injured, help it heal. Aquaphor is a superb product that is colorless, odorless, a bit goopy but is easily rubbed in and is rapidly absorbed. It does an excellent job of helping damaged skin heal.

Remember, all exposed skin is at risk, so consider protecting your neck (all helmets) and ears (anything less than a full-face helmet) just like your face. Lip protection using Chapstik or a similar product — or even petroleum jelly — works great as well. And it prevents peeling.

Can your diet and medications affect skin injury risk from windburn? Sure it can. Many riders (remember the demographic of aging riders) are on low-fat diets due to heart or other vascular disease, and often take a lipid-lowering medication, as well. These medications are broadly known as “statins,” since the name of those agents often end that way; lovastatin and atorvastatin are two common ones. Reduced dietary fat intake and medication-induced bloodstream fat lowering are great for heart disease but may dry out your skin, inducing dry spots and peeling even before your ride.

You can diminish these side effects by increasing useful fat in your diet, commonly fish oil. You can eat fish rich in omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids, swallow fish oil capsules, or even use lemon-flavored fish oil (sounds weird but works well; Carlson’s makes one that many like) on your healthy salad or while you cook.

While fish oil capsules are big, some are designed to not repeat on you, nor have a fishy taste to them; they are easily portable and no longer need to be separately presented to TSA at the airport. Yes, I am a fish oil user; so are my dogs — northern breeds are at risk for zinc deficiency and fish oil helps with absorption and to combat deficiency. Nutritional deficiencies like those of magnesium, and in particular zinc can damage your skin and hair as well. That is why nutritional supplements approved for use by hospitalized patients are pretty well balanced in terms of avoiding deficiencies of trace elements (manganese, zinc, selenium and others). Your mother was right — you are what you eat!

Oxford Chillout windproof balaclava
A windproof balaclava like this Oxford Chillout provides the best skin protection from windburn. Oxford photo.

You might wonder if a balaclava or a neoprene face mask will be effective at skin protection. It all depends, of course. The more wind the device lets through the less effective it will be; most identify that they are wind-resistant, not windproof. Of course, many of these devices are also fashion statements, but some wind blocking is better than no blocking at all. If yours lets in a lot of air, consider skin protection beneath it, as well.

Neck skin protection is aided by using a balaclava that has a neck apron, wearing a neck gaiter, or even a turtleneck base layer. Some advocate wearing a gaiter made for snowmobiling, snowboarding or skiing, especially if you are planning a long ride. Being proactive at preventing skin injury is an excellent way to avoid seeing your personal doctor or local Emergency Department.

When should you seek medical evaluation if you have windburned skin? When the red portions of your skin have increasing pain, skin cracking, bleeding, spreading redness, numbness, fever, or purulent drainage (this is really rare but very dangerous), those are all excellent reasons to get evaluated. Promptly! The last four should be evaluated in an Emergency Department right away, and not in the office of your primary care doctor or a dermatologist when they can find you a convenient appointment, as they all relate to infection and injury to deeper tissue, including nerves.

Yes, there is a clear overlap with chilblain, frostnip and frostbite. They are all less common than windburn, and I suspect more readily recognized as conditions that require both prevention and care. Windburn, on the other hand, seems to affect lots of riders, but is readily preventable with minimal effort and minimal expense.