Free or Cheap Ways to Fix Winter Skin

I love the transition from hot weather to cold, but my skin decidedly does not. Whether I'm living in frigid Scotland or temperate California, my skin protests the changing seasons  by erupting in acne (often caused by dehydration) and exacerbated by indoor heating and dryness.

As long as I can remember, every winter that I've been aware of my own skim, I've gone into a moisturizer-buying frenzy when the temperatures dip. Black Friday and holiday sales/new releases only encourage that bad habit. I'm never more gripped by unsubstantiated and overblown marketing messaging than I am when my face is flaking off.

I've noticed a lot of my followers and mutuals on Instagram falling over themselves to bolster their routines with winter's arrival, and they often do so by splurging on new supposedly heavier-duty creams, high-tech treatments, and plsuh-sounding masks. But I've found, for the most part, that's not the most economical or efficient way to save your face. Here are the things that make the most difference for me, in the shortest amount of time, with the least financial outlay:

Get a humidifier 

Shit, get two humidifiers. Put one on your desk at work, and put one on your nightstand for when you sleep. My face starts cracking around my jawline like clockwork the 3rd week of October (coincides with my birthday, thanks for the gift, Universe, you REALLY shouldn't have) and usually I'm too lazy to set up the humidifier until a few weeks later. But when I do set it up, I'm always astounded at the difference I feel in my skin. It's not instantaneous, but within 3 days, I notice increased comfort throughout the day, better makeup weartime, and less irritation and sensitivity when using acids or masks. I live in California- we do not have harsh weather. But most people crank up the heat in their cars, offices, and homes when the temperature starts to drop below their comfort zone (in California, that's under 68 degrees) and indoor heating wrecks even the most resilient of moisture barriers. Don't cry about humidifiers being expensive when I saw your Instagram stories justifying your desperate Drunk Elephant moisturizer purchases! A $60 humidifier will last multiple winters and pay for itself.

Ointment up, girl 

Vaseline, Aquaphor, Cerave Healing Ointment, Biafine...there are so many options out there, and they all cost peanuts. During summer you might have the luxury of falling asleep with a whisper of gel-cream, or a light layer of hydrating toner on your face, but in the winter you need a heavy duty arsenal. I use my ointments as sleeping mask, spot "treatments" for dry spots even under makeup, and most importantly, I use them to bolster the strength of my existing every day face creams. By mixing a blob of Cerave Cream (nowhere near potent enough to carry my face through a winter's night) with a blob of Aquaphor, I can make my wimpy day moisturizer into a powerhouse night mask, without shelling out for three "sexy" new night creams that end up disappointing me or breaking me out. If you're not hardcore and you don't enjoy having a literal full face of Vaseline when you fall asleep, you're wrong, but you can do my sleeping mask trick as a final step.

Oil is your friend 

Seriously, if you're not already a facial oil convert, you're missing out. It's [current year] and you have no excuse. There's some debate as to whether facial oils work better when applied BEFORE creams or after. Especially during winter, I say porque no los dos, and I oil-sandwich my night cream and let it all soak in while I slumber. The trick with facial oils is to apply them to not-fully-dry skin (usually I'll press on a layer of toner or gel essence, wait for it to soak in 50-75%, then go in with my oil) and also to press into the skin sparingly. You can always go back and add a few drops, but my skin prefers less oil, layered, rather than a whole puddle of oil slapped on at once. Although my skin loves many lightweight oils like jojoba, green tea seed, and hemp oil in the summer, in the winter I focus on heavier oils like mineral, lanolin, and pomegranate oil. Pure oils are remarkably cheap, even "precious" ones like pomegranate oil. Once I've determined what my skin likes by buying small samples from Garden of Wisdom, I search for bulk suppliers to get the best $/oz. I buy $28 for a pound of pomegranate seed oil. Trust me when I say the investment in oils is worth it, and minimal when compared to purchasing ready made products. My favorite trick is to mix a bottle of 50/50 light and heavy oil (my current go-to combo is green tea seed + lanolin oil) and keep a bottle on my bathroom counter to mix into my routine anywhere I want. It's cheaper than store-bought oils, so you can be really generous and frequent with application. The thing I love most about pure oils is how versatile they are in my routine. I've mixed a few drops of facial oil with my toner as a first step when my skin was raw and dehydrated, but I needed my face to be less greasy for makeup prep. You can apply oil at any point in your routine, mixed or unmixed, and it will do something slightly different. Experiment with "timing" and ratios of oil:other skincare and you'll be amazed at how cheaply you can stretch your routine.

Use less, not more, skincare 

With this I'm specifically side-eyeing your (I'm sure) highly reasonable stack of acids, exfoliators, masks, and treatments. During the winter, your skin will tolerate less. That's just the truth. You're sick more often, you're exposed to harsh outdoor weather and indoor climate control, you're probably eating like crap and sleeping odd hours due to your circadian rhythms getting dicked by the lack of sunlight...give yourself a break. Give your skin a break. This doesn't mean you can't treat acne or aging concerns for half the year, but if your skin is rebelling, and you are throwing more products at it to make it behave, take a beat and think about removing  a few steps before you add more. I specifically back way off of BHA usage in the winter- most weeks using it only once instead of 3-4 times like my summer schedule. I also completely swear off all clay masks from October to March, even though I adore them. I tend to avoid all physical exfoliation in the winter. I lean heavily on diluted tea tree oil and azelaic acid as those are the two least-drying but still-effective acne-fighters in my routine. Even glycolic acid, which my normally hardy skin loves, needs to be used with caution because it can cause tightness and itchiness on skin sensitized by winter. The best part about this tip (toots own horn discreetly) is you're encouraged to spend less not more. You do not need to buy One Magical Thing, Darling to fix your face. You need to listen to your own needs and be patient, even if that's less sexy and satisfying than blowing your skincare budget on 5 new cool-sounding moisturizers.

Turn the thermostat down 

Hi Hungry, I'm Dad! Seriously, this may not be an option depending on where you live or who you share a living space with...but if you can at all avoid running the heat, do it. Not only will it save you money, it will also save your poor dehydrated skin. I run hot, I'll admit, but I bundle up in cozy pajamas and wool socks when I'm bumming around the house in wintertime. I never turn the heat on unless I have an overnight guest who runs cold, and because of where I live, that works for me. Of course this is not a cold turkey directive- if you live somewhere with a more punishing climate, you may need to run the heat. But think about reducing your usage whenever possible. Bundle up more, put an extra quilt on the bed, even use a heating pad or blanket in place of running the forced-air heater. Your skin will thank you.

Wash your hands way more

And keep an extra tube of your favorite cheap face cream as a hand cream. I will admit I tend to wash my hands less in the winter even though I touch my face more. Either from feeling cold, or being annoyed at extra breakouts or dryness, my hands definitely wander to my chin and cheeks more than they should. And clean hands will mitigate the damage to some degree. In addition, washing hands a crapton is the best way to avoid catching cold. Personally, I get sick every single time there's "something going around," but the winter that my mom did chemo, I was so terrified of infecting her with a bug that I washed my hands upwards of 10 times a day. And I didn't get sick that whole year.
I avoid washing my hands in winter for a few reasons- one is that the sensation of cold water is obviously bothersome. Solution: run the hot water if you can. Just do it. The other reason I avoid it is because my already-dry hands feel drier the more I wash. I solve this by keeping a tube of cheapo face cream by my keyboard. This way if I touch my face I don't leave greasy, breakout-inducing hand cream swatches everywhere. Face cream is sufficient for daytime hand dryness and won't provoke more breakouts if I do touch my face.

Wash your clothing and bedding more frequently 

In the summer, I tend to wear low necklines and use next to no bedding. In the winter, I'm bundled up in scarves, turtlenecks, and you better believe I have my duvet pulled up around my face when I fall asleep. All of these cozy, cuddly items gather dirt and grossness and should be treated as breakout hazards. So be sure to switch out your sweaters, coats, and bedding whenever possible, and spot clean if you can't run them through the machine.

Break up with "always never" rules 

Maybe you think your skin tolerates alcohol all the time- I've been known to insist that. Maybe you know for a fact that you can't use heavy sleeping packs. Changes beget more change. Changes in temperature and habits during winter might affect your skin in unknown ways. Don't be scared to experiment and push the limits a little with how heavy your routine is at night, how much and what products you use, etc. Your skin in summer is not the same as your skin in winter and I know it's scary to play by different rules, but it's better to face facts than to insist your alternate reality is the truth.

Be kind to yourself

I'm a filthy capitalist shill, not a corporate shill. Companies love to lump your bothersome winter problems into a cutesy self-care package that conveniently stuffs into a stocking for the holidays. The truth is, you have more important things to spend your cash on than 5 new moisturizers. Some common sense and holistic self-care (holistic here meaning with regard to your whole person and routine, not just skincare) will do more for your wellness this winter than an advent calendar of travel-sized hydrating lies.


  1. In true Canadian fashion, I cracked and turned the heat on the first day it snowed, October 24th. It was 30F out. But yeah, I definitely crank it once winter hits because frozen pipes are no joke. And I live in a drafty attic of an old farmhouse. Woooo winter!

    Getting a humidifier is something I haven't much thought about - maybe not at home, but definitely at work. I've noticed my skin doesn't change much between summer and winter anymore since I spend five days a week in the dry old hospital (it changes but the change is no longer as drastic), but I should definitely consider adding some moisture to my office, especially since I sit right under the vent!

    1. I sit under a vent at work too! It's the woooOorst. I definitely think a humidifier should be a fixture in your office year-round, from the sound of it :_

  2. How about Rose hip oil.. I’ve never seen you mention it? Would you recommend it in the morning or at bed time? I’m using tretenoin and my skin is peeling like crazy even with tons of Cerave:(

    1. I don't personally use rosehip oil because it breaks me out. But like anything- it's personal. Just because I don't use something doesn't mean it's no good. There are literally hundreds of oils suitable for facial use- I just mentioned a few of my favorites above but there are many good ones. I use oil morning and night. Tretinoin peeling is really horrible and usually requires something more heavy duty than the standard Cerave in a tub.

    2. Thanks Lena! I will try a mix of Cetaphil plus Aquaphor. My skin has become extremely dehydrated .. any suggestions or tips please?

    3. Bdw i love your full hood look :)

  3. SUCH great advice! I didn't have much of an issue last year but this year my skin hasn't taken well to Southern California "winter" (hahaha, which is such a joke because I'm still in tee-shirts and haven't turned the heater on!) but I noticed an improvement when I stepped back and simplified my routine (not only did I cut out acids, but I cut out all serums and everything I thought should help but my hydrating toner, moisturizers, and facial oils. Not sure why it has worked, but I'll take it!)

  4. I was literally touching my face (the breakouts on my chin) as I got to the "Wash your hands way more" section. Ha! I clearly needed the reminder. Time to wash everything, turn up the humidifier, turn down the heat, and oil up my face.

  5. One small change I've found helpful is to change the heating setting in my car from "face and feet" to "feet only." This keeps me warm enough without blowing hot dry air straight on my face.

    1. This is a great tip! I definitely notice a difference from defrost/face to feet only but I sometimes forget to switch it over!!