Shopping·9 min read

The Best Winter Skincare Products, According to Dermatologists

winter skincare guide
Design: theSkimm | Images: Onekind, Rhode
January 4, 2024

You swap out your tees for sweaters when the weather gets colder. Why wouldn’t you do the same for your skin? Harsh winter conditions call for the dermatological equivalent of cashmere — gentle, protective, and deeply moisturizing. To learn more about the best winter skincare products, I spoke with two experts: Loretta Ciraldo, MD FAAD, a Miami-based board certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare; and Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology.

What happens to our skin in winter?

First, let’s get clear on why tweaking your skincare routine in winter is so important.

“Skin tends to be driest in the winter because cold temperatures, low humidity and brisk winds, along with dry heat from heaters, can really dry out our skin because more moisture is lost into the air in these conditions,” Dr. King shares.

Dr. Loretta adds that in winter, “our skin produces less healthy, moisture-trapping skin oils, referred to as lipids and ceramides.” TL;DR...our skin needs a little extra boost to function properly. 

What to look for in winter skincare products

According to the derms, a well-rounded winter skincare routine should incorporate three key ingredient classes: humectants, emollients, and occlusives.

  • Humectants: “Humectants are able to hold many times their weight in water to hydrate, smooth and even plump up the skin surface. Some of the most effective humectants are glycerin, hyaluronic acid, panthenol (vitamin B5), vitamin E, and aloe vera,” Dr. Loretta explains. 

  • Emollients: This type of ingredient “supports the skin barrier,” Dr. King says, which can become compromised in harsh conditions like plunging temperatures, high winds, and overactive indoor heating. Common examples include ceramides and squalane.

  • Occlusives: “These are oils and waxes that form an inert layer on the skin and physically block transepidermal water loss,” says Dr. King. In other words, they keep moisture locked in. “Examples include petrolatum, beeswax, mineral oil, silicones, lanolin, and zinc oxide.”

Together, these ingredient types not only add hydration, but they also work to “support the skin barrier and lock in moisture to keep it from being lost into the air,” according to Dr. King.   

Now that you're basically a dermatologist, let's shop. Mix and match these products to curate a routine that’s guaranteed to be nice to your skin in the coldest, darkest months of the year. Psst…don’t forget to top it all off with your sunscreen of choice

dr. loretta gentle hydrating cleanser

A cleanser that keeps your skin soft and bright…

In the winter months, Dr. Loretta recommends her Gentle Hydrating Cleanser for its stores of “glycerin and a moisture-surging algae extract," which both work as humectants. This happens to be my holy grail cleanser. It actually makes my skin look brighter, an effect typically reserved for exfoliators and serums. And it makes my dry/combination skin feel comfortable and soft — not stripped — so I’m not rushing to apply moisturizer as soon as I dry my face. I also like that it lathers up, unlike many hydrating cleansers, which makes me feel like I’m getting a good, thorough cleanse. ($40, Dermstore)

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CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser

A trusty drugstore cleanser that feels like a moisturizer…

For a less-expensive option, I like CeraVe’s Hydrating Facial Cleanser, which has long been a go-to for dermatologists. This contains two types of humectants — glycerin and hyaluronic acid — plus a special ceramide blend to restore the skin barrier. It’s formulated to steadily release its hydrating ingredients over a 24-hour period, so your skin will actually continue to hydrate itself throughout the day. This has a creamy, lotion-like texture to really double down on the moisturizing feel. ($15.48, Amazon

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Babor Enzyme Cleanser

A unique powder exfoliator that won’t strip your skin…

You shouldn’t stop exfoliating in winter, but you should use discretion. Dr. Loretta notes, “When we exfoliate, we not only remove dead cell buildup and dull, rough texture, we lose the moisture-trapping lipids that sit between our dead cells.” To maintain proper moisture levels — and avoid inflicting rawness and redness — she recommends slowing or stopping the use of harsher exfoliating agents, like glycolic and lactic acids, and instead opting for gentler enzyme cleansers.

This one from Babor is a finely milled powder that works up to a gentle lather when mixed with water. It includes activated enzymes that break down impurities, plus vitamin C and moringa seed extract for an antioxidant boost. Stick to exfoliating only once or twice a week, and moisturize well afterward. ($36, Amazon)

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First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

Exfoliating pads infused with hydrating ingredients…

Dr. Loretta also recommends using exfoliating pads during the winter months. These First Aid Beauty pads contain both glycolic and lactic acids to give you that clarified, glowy complexion you’re after, plus the appearance of tighter pores. Per Dr. Loretta’s advice, they’re also packed with soothing and hydrating ingredients, like aloe, cucumber, and hyaluronic acid, to counteract irritation. ($38, Sephora)  

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Onekind Midnight Magic PM Serum

A retinol serum that's surprisingly gentle...

Similarly to exfoliants, retinoids should be used with more care in the winter, since they’re notoriously drying for some. That might mean cutting back on frequency over the winter months, or swapping out a more powerful retinoid (like tretinoin) with more “moisturizing, gentle formulations,” says Dr. King. This nighttime serum from Onekind is a great option. It has encapsulated retinol (essentially, a retinoid delivered in a protective coating), peptides, and plant stem cells to encourage a firmer texture. Plant oils and beta-glucan keeps skin calm and hydrated. ($48, Onekind)

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I’m From Rice Toner
Soko Glam

A milky toner that balances and hydrates…

Toners don’t need to make your skin sting and burn to work. There’s a whole new guard of toners that work to rebalance your skin while also imparting hydration. This cult-fave option harnesses rice extract’s ability to retain water (aka, it works as a humectant), boost collagen production, tighten pores, and brighten sallow complexions. The milky texture feels like a calming, cooling treat on dehydrated skin. Swipe it onto clean, dry skin with a cotton pad, then follow it up with a thicker serum (like the ones below) and a moisturizer. ($28, Soko Glam)  

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COSRX Snail Mucin Essence

The snail mucin essence we can’t stop recommending…

We’ve written about COSRX’s snail mucin essence a lot, because it really is that good. In the short-term, it imparts lots of hydration and gives your skin a fresh, dewy sheen; over time, it can heal unwanted scarring and other inconsistencies in your skin texture. One HQ'r who's been using this for years says, "I can confirm it just makes your skin...better." Use it the same way as the I’m From toner above: after cleansing and before your serum and/or moisturizer. ($13.85, Amazon)

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Dr. Loretta Intense Replenishing Serum

A heavy-duty serum that replenishes super-dry skin…

Here’s another Dr. Loretta pick and personal fave. This feels less like a serum and more like a healing balm that both imparts and seals in moisture. It’s almost like a nongreasy Vaseline that dries down to a silky finish. On the scientific front, Dr. Loretta says that this works to “replace lipids that are more scarce in winter skin, as it traps intrinsic skin hydration.” Depending on how dry your skin feels, you may not even need to follow it up with a moisturizer. ($75, Dermstore)

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rhode Peptide Glazing Fluid

The peptide serum that lives up to the hype…

Us HQ'rs love the entire Rhode skincare line (we’ve reviewed it), but I can’t get enough of the Peptide Glazing Fluid, a lightweight, gel-like serum. It’s a particularly strong choice for dry winter skin, since it has a power-packed lineup of hydrating ingredients: hyaluronic acid, peptides, and marula oil. It also contains niacinamide, which “helps to stabilize the skin barrier and can increase our skin's production of ceramides,” Dr. King says, leading to properly hydrated skin in the long run. Layer it underneath your moisturizer, or do as Hailey does and tap it along the high points of your face and wear it as a dewy, colorless highlighter. ($30, Rhode)

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Hadalabo Hyaluronic Acid Solution

An amped-up hyaluronic acid solution beloved by J-beauty fans…

If you’ve spent any time on Japanese beauty threads on Reddit, you’ll have seen this Hada Labo product. This here is the Rolls-Royce of hyaluronic acid serums. It contains five molecular weights of hyaluronic acid for amped-up, moisture-retaining effects, and it has an ultra-thick, viscous texture that creates a barrier over your skin to lock in hydration. Your skin will look plumper and feel super-supple after using it. PS: A little bit goes a long way. I’ve been using a penny-sized amount morning and night for almost a year, and I’m only about three-quarters of the way through the bottle. ($17.69, Walmart)  

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Naturium Multipeptide Moisturizer

A power-packed moisturizer at a great price…

I never cease to be amazed that Naturium can keep its prices so low, since the derm-backed formulas are just as elegant as those from high-end skincare brands. If you get one thing from the brand this winter, make it this moisturizer. It uses a blend of peptides to strengthen the skin barrier and enhance elasticity. Panthenol and a stable form of vitamin C offer additional brightness and firmness. It’s midweight, so it’s hydrating but not heavy, and it sinks instantly into your skin. The airtight packaging keeps the product fresh, and the metallic tube looks chic on your bathroom sink. All that for less than $20. ($18.99, Amazon)   

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herbivore emerald oil

A hydrating oil that gives your skin a next-level glow…

If you’re an Oil Person™, you need this Herbivore option in your winter lineup. It’s on the thicker side but absorbs nicely, and the luxurious weight feels like heaven on dry, stressed skin. The addition of hemp instantly reduces redness and leaves your complexion looking like it was touched by an angel — glowy, radiant, glazed doughnut-esque. I can't live without it. ($50, Sephora

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charlotte tilbury magic cream moisturizer

A luxury moisturizer that MUAs and derms love…

Charlotte Tilbury’s moisturizer is a favorite among makeup artists (it works beautifully for pre-makeup prep), but Dr. King recommends it, too. She explains: “A good moisturizer contains humectants to hydrate, emollients to support the skin barrier, and occlusives to lock in the moisture — and this product contains all three: glycerin, hyaluronic acid, lactic acid, shea butter, dimethicone and sunflower seed oil, rosehip oil, camellia oil and vitamin E. And it's rich in antioxidants, including vitamin C. It also contains additional soothing ingredients, aloe, allantoin and rose water, in addition to anti-aging peptides.” ($100, Sephora)

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Hey Dewy Humidifier

A humidifier for an extra boost of hydration all night long…

No matter which skincare products you use, a humidifier can work wonders to keep skin healthy in the dry winter months, Dr. King shares. “A humidifier in the bedroom at night, or in other rooms where you are spending a lot of time, can also be helpful. By increasing the humidity of the air in your environment, you will lose less moisture from your skin into the air,” she says. This one from Hey Dewy is our go-to. It’s portable, easy to use, and the sleek aesthetic is a refreshing departure from clunky, old-school humidifiers. (Psst…Read our full review of this cute bedroom addition here.) ($59.95, Amazon)

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