Manage Dry Indoor Air This Winter

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on December 26, 2023
7 min read

Curling up in front of a roaring fire while watching a white, fluffy blanket of snow coat the ground outside can make winter feel magical, but the cold air seeping in from that lovely scene can be absolutely brutal. Cold winter air pulls away moisture, leaving your skin as dry and cracked as a salt flat and your sinuses as parched as the Sahara in summer. Dry air also contributes to that jarring static shock that practically propels you across the room every time you pet the cat.

Here are a few tips to help you combat dry indoor air, preserve the moisture in your skin and nasal passages, and avoid static shocks this winter.

There's a reason why you get so sweaty in the summer, and it's not just from the heat. Warm air holds more moisture than cold air.

In the winter, the cold air that seeps into your home from outside has a lower humidity, meaning it carries very little moisture. You crank up the heat inside your house, which adds warmth but doesn't increase the amount of moisture in the air.

Because of low humidity during winter, the little moisture that's around is quickly sucked up into the air. Moisture also evaporates from your body, leaving your skin, nose, and throat parched.

Cold, dry air pulls moisture from your mouth and nose, leaving your nasal passages and your throat dry. Dry nostrils are more likely to crack and give you a nosebleed.

Because your nose needs mucus to trap viruses and other invaders before they can get you sick, dry nostrils can also make you more vulnerable to colds, sinus infections, and the flu. That's especially a problem in winter, as bacteria and viruses can stay longer in the dry air after someone coughs or sneezes.

When you turn up the thermostat in your home, your heating system kicks up clouds of dust, pollen, and other allergens that can inflame your sinuses. Cold, dry air plus those allergens can also irritate your airways. For some people with asthma, cold and dry air can lead to a narrowing of breathing passages and trigger an attack.

Cold air sucks out skin's moisture, which is why even young, smooth hands can look cracked in the winter months. Taking hot showers can worsen dry, itchy skin by removing the natural layer of oil that preserves and protects the skin's moisture.

Your lips also take a beating in the winter. The cold wind outside, combined with the dry air inside, can leave you with dry, chapped lips.

Don't suffer in dryness. Here are a few tips for putting the moisture back into your home and your body:

Use a humidifier 

Running a humidifier in your home will add moisture to dry, heated air. The moist air will help keep your skin, mouth, and nose lubricated. It will also help prevent those nasty static shocks. Your goal is to aim for a comfortable home humidity level of 30%-50%. Don't crank up the humidifier higher than that, though, or you could develop another problem -- mold, fungi, dust mites, and other tiny critters that like moist environments and will grow when humidity is too high. Make sure to keep your humidifier clean so that it doesn't send dust and germs spewing into your house. You should empty and dry it daily and clean it at least every 3 days.

Seal your home

Don't allow the cold, dry air from outside to pay you an unwelcome visit. Insulate your home so you don’t have to turn up the heat. Close any air leaks in doors, windows, attics, and crawl spaces with caulk, spray foam, or weather stripping. Sealing off air leaks will also help you save money on your monthly heating bill because you'll feel warm and cozy enough to turn down the thermostat a few notches.

Hydrate often

Keep your skin and mouth moist by drinking water throughout the day. To figure out how much water you need daily, divide your weight by two. So, a 150-pound person would need 75 ounces a day. Don’t like water? Try putting in a little tea or juice to add flavor. You can also eat soups and drink broth to count toward your daily hydration needs. Fruits and vegetables such as cucumber and melons are also very hydrating. Caffeinated beverages are diuretics and make you pee more frequently, flushing water and electrolytes out. So if you drink those, be sure to drink more water to make up for that loss.

Shorten your showers

Long, hot showers might feel great on frigid winter mornings, but the heat and steam can really dry out your skin. Turn the water temperature down to warm. If you get out of the shower and your skin is red, the water was too hot. You can also use a gentle soap or cleanser that is soap-free so it doesn't strip your skin's natural oil barrier. Get out as soon as you're clean. In the winter, showers of 5-10 minutes should be enough. You may want to skip days between showers, depending on your activity level.

Moisturize

Rub a thick, oil-based moisturizer onto your skin frequently each day, especially after you take a shower or bath. The oil in the product will lock moisture into your skin and keep it from drying out. Moisturizers come in different forms, but ointments and creams will provide the most protection for dry skin (as opposed to lotions, which are made with more water and less moisturizer). Look for products that contain ingredients such as ceramides, hyaluronic acids, and glycerin, which attract moisture and replenish your skin's lipid levels. Make sure to apply moisturizing sunscreen with SPF 30 to exposed skin before going outside. Also, apply a lip balm or petroleum jelly to protect against chapped lips. Help keep your nasal passageways moist by using salt water (saline) drops, or a nasal irrigation product such as a neti pot or squeeze bottle. Be sure to follow the instructions for cleaning nasal irrigation products to avoid getting dangerous bacteria in your nasal passages. And always use distilled, sterile, or boiled and cooled tap water in the device. You can also try rubbing a little petroleum jelly into each nostril gently with a cotton swab.

You may think that cleaning regularly is a good way to keep your indoor air irritant-free. But it can actually make things worse unless you choose your cleaning products wisely.

Some cleaning products, including those with chlorine and ammonia, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some paints, shellacs, and floor polishes may also contain VOCs. The compounds then go into the air as gasses.

VOCs can cause several health issues if you are exposed to their vapors. These include:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat

  • Headaches

  • Nausea

  • Kidney or liver damage

  • Central nervous system damage

You can cut down on VOCs by choosing products that say “low VOC” or “no VOC” or buying fragrance-free cleaners.

It's also a good idea to ventilate your house, even when it's cold outside. Virus particles, VOC gasses, and other contaminants can concentrate in the air unless your house is well-ventilated. To ensure adequate ventilation, consider the following:

  • Open windows, even if it's just for a few minutes a day.

  • Make sure the air filter in your heating and cooling system is installed properly and changed at least every 3 months.

  • Use a high-efficiency particulate air cleaner (HEPA) to filter indoor air.

  • If other options aren't available, you can turn on your exhaust fans in the bathroom and above the stovetop to provide airflow. Some even push indoor air outside.

There are the pets we love and invite into our homes and beds, and then there are those uninvited guests such as house dust mites.

These creepy, crawly microscopic critters are the most common cause of allergies from house dust. They can be found where you sleep (your pillows and mattresses), where you relax (upholstered furniture), and where you walk (your carpeting). What’s more, they float into the air when you vacuum, walk on a carpet, or ruffle your bedding.

There are several things you can do to keep dust mites at bay. Dust mites love humid air, so keep house humidity around 30%.

Air conditioning can keep humidity down and reduce dust mite allergens tenfold. If you don’t have air conditioning, try a dehumidifier. You can measure humidity in your house with a hygrometer, available at hardware stores.

Impermeable covers on mattresses and pillows can also help keep these unwanted guests off your bedding. Wash bedding (and washable stuffed toys) once a week in hot water and dry them thoroughly.

Reduce dust by dusting often with a damp (not dry) cloth or dust mop. Vacuum upholstered furniture, drapes, and rugs thoroughly once a week, preferably with a vacuum with a HEPA filter.