What's the difference between windburn and sunburn?

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer

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After spending a day in cold, windy weather, you may notice your skin is red and irritated similar to a sunburn.

While your skin may be affected by sunburn, it is possible that you may also have windburn.

Windburn is the term that describes the red irritation of your skin after being outside in the cold, windy weather. It is particularly common after doing an outdoor activity like skiing or hiking, according to Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy, senior medical director at WebMD.

"What’s happening is that the oil on your skin is getting depleted because of the weather and your skin underneath gets really irritated," Cassoobhoy said.

While sunburn occurs when the sun’s light burns the skin and causes long-term damage, windburn damages the outer layer of your skin and does not cause long-term damage.

Sunburn and windburn can occur together, and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the two. People will often have an element of both, according to Cassoobhoy.

person bundled up


Windburn is best prevented by protecting and covering your skin during the winter. Similar to how you would protect your skin at other times of the year, but with a little more caution.

"You’re still going to use a moisturizer and a sunblock to protect your skin from the UV light, but you also want to cover up," Cassoobhoy said.

The most common areas for windburn are your hands and your face, which includes your eyes, lips and ears.

"Any part of your body can get damaged and suffer from windburn if it’s exposed, but your hands and face are the most common areas that would be exposed. So, covering up with a scarf, gloves, goggles and sunglasses is really important," Cassoobhoy said.

If you know you’re going to be out and at risk of windburn, you can review the products that you use on your face. Certain acne products and anti-wrinkle cream include agents that dry out your skin and that can irritate the windburn as well as increase your risk for it.

"Hold off on those products a few days before a ski trip or a hiking trip. And if you do get wind burn, you can kind of hold off on those products while your skin is healing," Cassoobhoy said.

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If you do have windburn, the best treatment is to moisturize with a mild lotion and it will resolve on its own. You can try a product like Aloe Vera to soothe the irritation.

"Luckily, the damage isn’t going to be long-term. Your skin is healing; you’ll get some peeling, and that should be the end of it," Cassoobhoy said.

If you have a condition that feels like windburn, but it’s not going away and you haven’t had the exposure outside, then it could be something else that requires medical attention. Visit a doctor if conditions persist or worsen.


For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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