What Is Windburn? Ultimate Guide to Windburn Triggers, Symptoms, and Remedies

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Have you ever ended up with a red, burning face after a long bike ride, skiing trip, or just being outside on a cold windy day?

Well, this is probably windburn (sometimes also spelled wind burn).

While many people dismiss this redness and irritation as a natural result of being outside in windy weather, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Even though most people feel better after a few days, windburn still involves skin damage.

What is windburn? 

Windburn is the red, painful, and sometimes flaking skin you get after being exposed to cold, windy weather. It feels a lot like sunburn, leading many people to wonder if these two conditions are in fact the same.

Are sunburn and windburn the same? 

The symptoms of sunburn and windburn are very similar. This is why some scientists believe that they’re essentially the same condition.

Others argue that windburn is more of an irritation caused by the wind stripping off the layer of moisture that protects the skin, and sunburn is damage by ultraviolet (UV) rays.

However, these conditions often occur together. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, exposure to wind can dry out and weaken the outer layer of the skin that serves as a protective barrier. Without this protection, the lower layers of the skin are more vulnerable to UV radiation.

Old man with a windburn outdoors

This usually happens to people who go skiing or hiking in snowy weather. Snow reflects sunlight, exposing your skin to ultraviolet rays from a variety of angles and causing sunburn. At the same time, cold wind makes the skin dry and more prone to damage.

Because of this, it makes sense to protect your skin against the wind and the sun  simultaneously.

How long does windburn take to heal? 

Windburn usually goes away in a few days if you moisturize the affected skin and don’t pick at it.

However, severe windburn can cause blisters on the skin, which won’t go away as quickly. If you develop blisters, ask your doctor for advice.

What are the symptoms of windburn? 

The symptoms of windburn are similar to sunburn and can include:

  • Redness of the affected area
  • Dry skin that can be painful to the touch
  • Peeling and flaking
  • Inflammation
  • Blisters

How to prevent a face windburn

Windburn usually affects the face because the other parts of your body are protected by clothing. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to prevent windburn on your face.

Avoid harsh skincare products before heading outside

Chemical peels and alcohol-containing skin toners have their place in many people’s skincare routines. However, they're not the best choice in cold and windy weather.

Make sure that your winter skincare routine is built around gentle cleansing products and high-quality moisturizers.

If you’re not sure which products to choose, book an appointment with a dermatologist. They’ll identify what your skin needs and suggest appropriate products that won’t break the bank.

Check medication leaflets and ask your doctor for advice

Some medications can make your skin more sensitive to wind and sunlight. For example, tretinoin (a popular treatment for acne) can make your face extremely prone to sunburn and dryness during the first six months of use.

Other medications that cause sun sensitivity include:

  • Certain kinds of antibiotics
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Antihistamines (allergy medications)
  • Popular painkillers like ibuprofen
  • Birth control pills
  • Medications used in chemotherapy

If you take any medication on a regular basis, check its patient information leaflet to find out if skin sensitivity is listed as a side effect. Discuss your concerns with your doctor; they might suggest different medications or offer valuable tips for managing this side effect.

Woman packing sunscreen as a windburn prevention method

Use sunscreen, even on cloudy days

Many people believe that they should only wear sunscreen on hot, sunny summer days. However, ultraviolet rays can penetrate clouds, so dreary weather doesn’t fully prevent you from getting sunburned.

Sunscreen is even more important on snowy days because snow is the most reflective natural surface on Earth. In fact, it reflects up to 80 percent of the ultraviolet rays that reach the ground!

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If you wear foundation or face powder, you can look for products that act as sunscreen and have a moderate to high SPF. But no matter what kind of sunscreen you use, don’t forget to reapply it every few hours!

Remember that sunscreen is not the ultimate solution because it doesn’t fully block all types of UV rays. In addition to this, some people are allergic to sunscreen and have to protect their skin with clothes and hats instead.

Wear sunglasses (and a hat)

Sports sunglasses don’t just make you look cool. They also protect the delicate skin around your eyes from wind and UV rays, effectively reducing the risk of windburn.

A balaclava is another good addition to your winter wardrobe because it protects your nose, cheeks, and chin. It’s especially useful if you’re allergic to sunscreen or use medications that make your skin vulnerable to sun and wind damage. Alternatively, you can cover your face with a big, warm scarf – just make sure it isn’t itchy!

Last but not least, don’t forget to wear a nice cozy winter hat to protect your forehead from the sun. Hats aren’t just for staying warm!

How to prevent windburn on your lips

The skin on your lips is very delicate, so it needs extra protection during the colder months. Here are some tips to prevent windburn on your lips:

  • Wear moisturizing lip balm with SPF protection (it’s like sunscreen for the lips!).
  • Consider using a humidifier when you’re inside because dry air can lead to dry skin.
  • Avoid licking your lips, especially in windy weather.
  • Cover your mouth with a scarf or a balaclava (as long as you feel comfortable).

Windburn treatment

We’ve got good news: windburn usually goes away in a few days. Here are some simple tips to make healing even faster:

Moisturize (a lot)

Moisturizing creams can be applied several times a day. So don’t skimp on them. Just pamper your windburned skin as often as you want to.

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When washing your face, look for cleansing products that help the skin maintain moisture. Avoid alcohol-based products or anything that can leave your skin dry, like clay masks.

Set those exfoliating scrubs aside

Exfoliating your skin helps you get rid of dead cells and impurities that can clog your pores. However, it will have to wait until your windburn has healed. When your skin is already damaged, trying to scrub it will slow down the healing process.

Don’t pick at your skin

While it may be very tempting to bite your windburned lips or scratch that weird itch on your nose or cheeks, try to avoid it. 

Picking at your skin or biting your lips can damage your skin even further. If the itch is irresistible, try a hydrocortisone cream. While these creams aren’t suited for long-term use, they can be very effective at calming irritated skin.

Say no to dry air

When you heat your home in winter, the air becomes dry, sometimes so dry that it will make your windburned skin uncomfortable.

If you don’t have a humidifier, you can combat dry air with super-simple methods such as:

  • Placing bowls of water around the room
  • Hanging laundry out to dry instead of using the dryer
  • Cooking meals that involve boiling water on a stove (like pasta or potatoes)
  • Spraying water into the air using a spray bottle
  • A woman is using ckincare products for windburn

Wash your face with lukewarm water

While a hot bath can really help you unwind on a winter evening, it can also strip your skin of its natural moisture. When you’re already combating dry skin, hot water can make your condition even worse

Opt for lukewarm water until your skin has fully healed. 

Contact your doctor if necessary

If you develop blisters or your symptoms don’t improve in a few days, see a doctor. They will examine your skin and prescribe stronger treatments if necessary.

Key takeaways

Windburn is damage to your skin caused by cold weather, wind, and possibly UV rays that pass through clouds and get reflected by snow.

The main symptoms of windburn are similar to those of sunburn. They include redness and dry skin that’s painful to the touch.

Fortunately, windburn can be prevented by wearing sunscreen, using gentle skincare products, and protecting your face with sunglasses and accessories such as hats and scarves.

Treating windburn usually takes a few days. To help your skin heal faster, apply rich moisturizing creams, avoid hot water, and try to stay away from dry air.

November 8, 2022