Overview

Windburn is a condition that refers to the burning and redness your skin might endure after spending time outdoors in the cold, windy air. Some experts argue that the windburn you get during cold, dry months is actually sunburn. Others address it as a separate condition entirely.

Regardless, your skin is susceptible to burning, even if it’s dry, cold, and overcast. Learn the symptoms of windburn and how you can protect your skin.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of windburn are similar to that of sunburn. Your face might be red and tender to the touch. You may also have a “burning” sensation. As the redness fades, your skin might start to peel.

These symptoms could very well be from sunburn, though what some label as windburn often also includes very dry skin due to the effects of the cold.

What causes this?

Sunburn is one of the suspected causes of windburn. In fact, some skin experts use the terms interchangeably. It may not seem like sunscreen is necessary on a cold, overcast day. However, the sun’s rays can still damage your skin during the winter. Ultraviolet (UV) rays can also penetrate through clouds and cause sunburn.

According to the Marshfield Clinic, snow and ice can reflect up to 80 percent of UV rays, doubling your risk of sunburn on a winter day. Higher altitudes also increase your risk of UV exposure.

Still, other experts contend that windburn is in fact its own separate condition. It happens when your skin loses its natural oils from extreme cold, dry air. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the wind itself can reduce the amount of natural protection your skin has against UV rays. In turn, you may be more susceptible to the sun on a cold, windy day.

Other underlying skin conditions can increase your risk of windburn. These include rosacea and eczema. If you’ve had a dermatologic procedure done, such as dermabrasion or a chemical peel, your skin may be extra sensitive to the wind, too. This is because such procedures remove the outer layer of your skin (epidermis).

Treatment options for relief

Treatment for windburn involves replenishing your skin’s moisture while also reducing any pain. An over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen can reduce mild pain and swelling.

Lukewarm water can also decrease the burn. Avoid using hot water while you’re recovering from windburn. This will strip away even more moisture from the skin and extend your recovery time.

Replenishing your skin’s moisture is important in both pain relief and overall recovery. You can still wash your face and body, but make sure you do so with a creamy cleanser. Gel and water-based cleansers may be too drying for windburned skin.

Apply moisturizer throughout the day as needed while your skin recovers. If you’re using a thicker lotion, you may use it up to four times per day, recommends the Marshfield Clinic. Avoid using any exfoliants, toners, and astringents until your skin completely heals.

You’ll also want to limit your time outdoors during the recovery process. Use a humidifier if you have one to prevent your skin from drying out even more.

Finally, make sure you drink plenty of water. Even if you don’t feel overly thirsty, windburn dehydrates your skin. Drinking water is a way to replenish moisture from the inside out.

Windburned lips | Lips

Due to their naturally thinner skin, your lips are one of the most sensitive parts of your body. Their prominent location also makes them even more vulnerable to the elements, which can cause them to get windburned.

The following measures can help treat windburned lips:

  • drink water
  • avoid hot beverages
  • avoid spicy foods
  • don’t pick at your lips — let any peeling skin shed on its own
  • use a thick chap stick throughout the day
  • apply an emollient cream or Vaseline for extra protection

How long will it take to heal?

The amount of time it takes your skin to heal from windburn largely depends on the severity. As is the case with sunburn, you’ll likely feel less pain and swelling after a couple of days. The redness will go away after a few days, and your skin may peel afterward. More severe cases can cause blisters that take longer to heal.

Prevention tips

The most foolproof way to prevent windburn is to prevent outdoor exposure. Still, this isn’t always realistic. If you have to be outside in cold, dry, and windy conditions, consider:

  • covering your face with a scarf
  • wearing sunglasses
  • using a hat and gloves
  • wearing long sleeves and pants
  • dressing in layers

Also, regardless of whether windburn is a separate condition or not, you should always wear sunscreen. Look for a broad-spectrum product that has a minimum SPF of 30. Learn why SPF matters.

For cold and windy days, consider wearing an emollient-rich sunscreen. This way you’re protected from the sun’s UV rays and the drying effects of the wind. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying sunscreen every two hours as needed. Also make sure your lip balm has an SPF of 15.

The takeaway

The phenomena behind windburn has been a cause of debate between skin experts for nearly a century, but one thing is for sure: Being outside, even on a cold and dry day, can cause your skin to get burned. The key is to protect your skin from the sun and other elements every single day. See your doctor if the symptoms of windburn or sunburn persist after a few days, or if they worsen.