What Is Dry Skin?
Dry skin is when your skin dries out because it doesn’t have enough moisture. It isn’t usually serious, but it can be irritating. If you have severe dry skin, you should see a doctor.
There are many causes of dry skin, from the temperature outside to how much moisture is in the air.
Types of Dry Skin
Although dry skin is usually temporary, there are types of dry skin that could last year-round. If your dry skin lasts a long time, it could be one of these types:
- Athlete’s foot: If your feet feel dry, it could actually be athlete’s foot. This condition, which results from a fungus, can make the soles of your feet dry and flaky.
- Contact dermatitis: Sometimes, things that touch your skin can cause an allergic reaction. Your skin could get dry, itchy, and red. You might also get a rash. It can happen with things such as makeup products, medications, detergents, or metal in jewelry (nickel).
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis): If your skin has dry, red, and itchy parts, you could have eczema. This can also make your skin crack. You can get this skin condition from your parents, but things such as allergens, stress, and other irritants can make it worse.
- Seborrheic dermatitis: When your scalp is too dry, you can get dandruff. (It’s called cradle cap when babies get it.) You might have dry, flaky skin on your arms, legs, groin, face, ears, or near your belly button.
Dry Skin Symptoms
Dry skin can be different for everyone, since the symptoms depend on factors such as your health, your age, and the cause of your dry skin. But chances are, when you have dry skin, you’ll have symptoms, such as:
- Cracked skin (the cracks could be deep and bleed)
- Peeling, flaking, or scaling
- Skin that feels rough or is gray and ashy
- Skin that feels tight, especially after you’ve been in the water (bathing, showering, or swimming)
Dry Skin Causes and Risk Factors
Usually, dry skin happens because of environmental factors, such as the weather. Dry skin can be caused by:
- Harsh detergents or soaps: Soaps, shampoos, and detergents are made to get rid of oil on your skin. That means they can also dry it out by stripping out all the moisture.
- Heat: Any heat source, from space heaters and central heating to fireplaces and wood stoves, can lower the humidity in a room and make your skin dry.
- Hot showers or baths: Taking long, hot showers or soaking in a hot bath could cause dry skin.
- Other skin conditions: People with certain conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema, can also get dry skin.
- Swimming in pools: Chlorine, a chemical that keeps some pools clean, can dry out your skin.
- Weather: During the winter, humidity and temperature usually drop. This can make your skin drier.
Although dry skin is common and can affect anyone, there are some things that make you more likely to get it. Your chances of getting dry skin can depend on:
- Your age. If you’re 40 or older, your chances are higher. Over 50% of older adults have dry skin.
- Where you live. Your odds go up if you live in cold or dry climates without much humidity.
- Your job. If your skin gets wet often during your job, it’s more likely to dry out. Swimming instructors and hairstylists often have their skin in water.
- Your health conditions and genes. Some people inherit from their parents some health conditions that can cause dry skin. These include eczema, diabetes, kidney disease, thyroid, and other hormone disorders.
Other Dry Skin Causes and Inflammation
So, what causes your skin to break out in red, itchy patches? Experts aren’t exactly sure. But research says things such as health, genetics, environment, certain products, and lifestyle may act as triggers. But eczema affects different people in different ways, so the things that cause you to have flare-ups may not bother someone else.
Immune system. When you have eczema, your body has an immune system that reacts too much. It responds easily to something that’s either inside your body (such as genes) or outside of it (such as an allergen or irritant). This reaction damages the skin barrier—the topmost layer of your skin that defends your body from bacteria and keeps it from losing too much moisture. Without this protection, your skin is more sensitive, dry, brittle, and prone to inflammation.
Genetics. You’re more likely to have eczema if you have:
- Family or personal history of dermatitis
- Hay fever
- Allergy to environmental factors like pollen, poison ivy, or pet hair
- Food allergy
Research shows that you’re also more likely to have eczema if you have a gene mutation that makes your body less able to produce enough filaggrin. This is a type of protein that helps your body build a strong skin barrier. If you’re low on filaggrin, your skin may lose a lot of water and become dry. It can also expose your skin to viruses and bacteria and make it more prone to infection.
There’s no cure or supplement you can take to fix your filaggrin levels, but keeping your immune system healthy can help ward off skin problems.
Environment. A change in weather, seasons, and temperature can cause your eczema to flare up.
In the winter, dry air can suck the moisture from your skin and cause itching. This can make your eczema worse. When you turn up the heat to make your house warm, this can dry your skin out and irritate it.
During summer, because of high temperatures, you may lose water from your skin if you don’t take in more fluids. This can lead to dryness and cause your eczema to flare up. Hot weather also makes your body sweat more and lose water as a way to cool your body.
Besides water, sweat is also made up of certain metals, such as zinc, copper, and iron. When these come in contact with your skin, they can irritate it and set off a reaction. The sweat tends to build up most in the creases of your elbows, the backs of your knees, and neck. These then become “hot spots” for eczema rashes.
The heat itself can also trigger your eczema. Hot weather tends to expand your blood vessels underneath the skin and cause inflamed cells to move. This can kick-start the itching and burning.
Allergens and irritants. Many of the daily products you use at home, work, or on your body may irritate your skin or cause an allergic reaction. Whether mild or severe, these things could make your eczema worse. They can cause a type of eczema called contact dermatitis.
They can include:
- Metals, such as nickel, zinc, copper, or iron
- Cigarette smoke
- Soap and body wash
- Household cleaners, such as laundry detergent or bleach
- Clothes made of wool or polyester
- Antibacterial ointment
- Formaldehyde, a chemical found in glue and disinfectants
- Cocamidopropyl betaine, found in lotions and shampoos
- Paraphenylene-diamine, found in leather dyes and temporary tattoos
- Juices from fresh fruit, and vegetables, or meats (when you touch them)
- Food allergens, such as meats and vegetables
Stress. Experts say that if you’re feeling emotional distress, it could set off an eczema breakout or make it worse. But they’re not sure why that happens. If you have severe eczema, the intense itching, pain, and burning could make it hard to relax or fall asleep, cause anxiety and depression, or make you feel self-conscious about how the dry, scaly patches look. This can cause you stress and lower your quality of life.
Dry Skin Treatment and Prevention
When it comes to household skin irritants, the list is practically endless. It includes cleaning products, floor polishes, air fresheners, and laundry detergent, just to name a few. These products strip skin of water and oils it needs, leading to dryness and irritation. For some people, dry skin can progress to more serious conditions, such as eczema or dermatitis.
The following things can make your home easier on your skin:
Wear gloves for housework
To take good care of your hands, you need to protect them from harsh household cleaners and dish detergents, which are proven skin irritants. Use non-latex rubber gloves when it’s time to scrub. Or better yet, create a double barrier of protection: wear a pair of rubber gloves over a layer of thin, soft cotton ones before you touch a bucket or sponge.
Shower and moisturize after a swim
Using chlorine to keep your pool clean can also dry your skin out. The best treatment: As soon as you or your children step out of the pool, head inside to rinse off with water and mild soap. Follow up with a moisturizer that lists glycerin as the first ingredient. It will help your skin hold on to moisture and prevent future dryness.
Try coconut oil
Because it has essential fatty acids (EFAs), coconut oil can help keep your skin hydrated and protected. Ask your doctor about adding it to your diet to help keep your skin moisturized. You can also use it as a moisturizer and rub it on your skin.
Slather on petroleum jelly
If you have sensitive skin that’s easily bothered by household skin irritants, the best treatments contain the fewest ingredients. When abrasive household products touch skin, they break down its protective barrier. Putting a chemical-laden moisturizer on top of an already weakened area leads to burning, stinging, itching, and redness.
Because it contains only one ingredient, petroleum jelly is gentle on your skin. You can use it to soothe dry skin, from your lips to your hands to your feet. Because it’s so safe and inexpensive, you can apply it as often as you like.
Take an oatmeal bath
Oats have been used to treat dry skin for centuries. But only recently have researchers found what eases the itch: chemicals called avenanthramides that fight inflammation and redness.
To make the most of oats’ itch-fighting power, toss them into lukewarm bathwater. Grind either quick or old-fashioned oatmeal in a blender or food processor and slowly sprinkle it into the tub as the water runs. Then soak for at least 15 minutes.
Banish dust mites
One common household skin irritant lives and breathes in most every room of your home: the dust mite. To prevent mite-related itch and irritated skin, vacuum floors and carpets, and wash your bedding in water that’s 130 F or hotter at least once a week.
Switch to hydrating hand sanitizer
You can’t check out at a convenience store or walk into a doctor’s office without seeing a hand sanitizer dispenser these days. And many families keep bottles all over the house for quick and easy hand cleansing.
But alcohol-based sanitizers can really dry out your hands. Look for hydrating versions that say dermatologist-recommended on the label.
If your skin is extremely dry and itchy or tends to crack, your doctor might prescribe a topical steroid to ease inflammation. Oral or injectable medications may be necessary if your condition is severe.
Best Moisturizers for Dry Skin
When choosing a moisturizer for your dry skin, look for products that:
- Don’t have fragrances.
- Don’t contain ingredients that dry your skin, such as isopropyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol or sulfates.
- Include ingredients that lock in moisture like petroleum jelly, hyaluronic acid, lanolin or mineral oils (emollients).
- Include ingredients that attract moisture, like glycerin.
- Stop itching (hydrocortisone steroid).
- Protect your skin from the sun with an SPF.
- Are designed for the affected area of your skin (face vs. body). You may need more than one moisturizer for different parts of your body.