What is dry skin?
Dry skin is skin that doesn’t have enough moisture in it to keep it feeling soft. The medical term for dry skin is xeroderma (pronounced “ze-ROW-derm-ah”). Xerosis (pronounced “ze-ROW-sis”) is severely dry skin. Dry skin feels like rough patches of your skin that can flake or look scaly. If your skin is dry, it may or may not be itchy (pruritis). Severe dry skin may crack and bleed.
What are the types of dry skin?
Types of dry skin include:
- Contact dermatitis: Contact dermatitis occurs when something comes into contact with your skin that causes an irritant or allergic reaction. Your skin may be dry, itchy and red, and you may also have a skin rash. Some examples include jewelry metals (nickel), cosmetics, detergents or medications.
- Eczema: Eczema is a group of skin conditions that cause red, dry, bumpy and itchy patches of skin. Severe forms can cause cracking of your skin, which makes you more prone to infection. This common skin condition can worsen with irritants, allergens and stress.
- Seborrheic dermatitis: Dry skin on your scalp can be the result of a condition known as dandruff in adults or cradle cap in infants. Seborrheic dermatitis can also cause dry, flaky skin patches on your face, chest and inside creases of your arms, legs or groin. Less commonly, it can also affect your navel (belly button). This type of dermatitis occurs when your body reacts to a normal yeast that grows on your skin.
- Athlete’s foot: Athlete’s foot can mimic dry skin on your feet, but a fungus causes it. When this fungus grows on your body, it’s called “ringworm.” People who have athlete’s foot may have dry, flaky skin on the soles of their feet.
Who does dry skin affect?
Dry skin is common and affects nearly everyone at some point in their life. You might be more at risk of getting dry skin if you:
- Live in a dry or cold climate.
- Work outside often.
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Have another health condition like allergies.
- Are 65 years or older.
How does dry skin affect my body?
Dry skin changes the texture of your skin from soft to rough. This can cause your skin to feel itchy or change color from your normal skin tone. You can have dry skin patches, which are small areas of dry skin, or dry skin could affect a larger area of your skin. Dry skin is usually harmless and only causes temporary discomfort until you’re able to rehydrate your skin with a moisturizer.
Severely dry skin is fragile and easily flakes or cracks, which can turn into a painful sore. In the event of skin sore from dry skin, take care of your skin like you would an injury or wound to prevent infection.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of dry skin?
Symptoms of dry skin include skin that’s:
- Lighter or darker than your normal skin tone or red to purple.
If you have severely dry skin, a rash could develop on your skin. The rash could have small, pimple-like bumps, be itchy, swollen or be a different color than the skin around it, usually red to purple. The medical term for this rash is dermatitis, which is another word for skin swelling and inflammation.
Where on my body will I have dry skin?
You can have dry skin anywhere on your body, but the most common places include:
- Around your mouth.
How do I know if I have dry skin?
You can test your skin at home to see if you have dry skin by lightly dragging your fingernails across your skin. When you do this, make sure you don’t put any pressure on your skin with your fingernails and avoid scratching yourself. This test works well on your arms or legs where you have a large surface area of skin. When you perform this test, look at your skin and see if it flakes. Flaking skin is a sign of dry skin. This could look like tiny snowflakes or dust. You might even see a light mark on your skin that’s similar to a line on a chalkboard where you performed this test.
What causes dry skin?
A lack of moisture within the layers of your skin causes dry skin. Factors that cause dry skin include:
- Age: As you age, your skin’s moisture-producing oil glands dry up. This causes the fat and collagen (elasticity) in your skin to also dry up, which leads to thinning skin. This is a natural part of your body’s aging process.
- Climate: The temperature of your environment can affect your skin’s hydration. Climates that lack humidity like desert-like climates or cold climates where there’s heavy wind cause dry skin. Dry skin is often worse during the winter, but dry skin can occur year-round.
- Health conditions and genetics: You could be more at risk of getting dry skin if you’re born with genes that make you more prone to it or you have a health condition that causes dry skin as a symptom. Some conditions that lead to dry skin include allergies, eczema, diabetes and kidney disease.
- Occupations: Certain professions can lead to dry skin, especially if you work outdoors, with chemicals or wash your hands frequently. Some professions that make you more likely to develop dry skin include healthcare providers, hairstylists and farmers.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is dry skin diagnosed?
Dry skin can be easy to diagnose by its appearance. Your healthcare provider will diagnose dry skin after a complete medical history, a physical exam and learning more about your symptoms.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your healthcare provider may order tests to check for health conditions that cause dry skin, such as:
Management and Treatment
How is dry skin treated?
Treatment for dry skin focuses on rehydrating or bringing moisture back to your skin. Treatment for dry skin could include:
- Using moisturizers: Moisturizers are the main form of treatment for most types of dry skin. They smooth and soften dry skin to help prevent cracking and work to recreate your natural skin barrier. Moisturizing products come in ointments, creams, lotions and oils and include ingredients like emollients, which soothe and hydrate your skin, and hyaluronic acid, which increases moisture in your skin
- Taking medications: For extremely dry skin that’s itchy or prone to cracking, your healthcare provider may prescribe a topical steroid, which acts to decrease the swelling (inflammation) in your skin that causes a rash and itching. In severe cases, oral or injectable medication may be appropriate.
What type of lotion or moisturizer is best for dry skin?
There are several different moisturizer options available if you have dry skin. When choosing a moisturizer for your dry skin, look for products that:
- Don’t have fragrances.
- Don’t contain ingredients that lead to skin dehydration like 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 to your skin like glycerin.
- Prevent itching (hydrocortisone steroid).
- Offer protection from the sun (sunscreen) with an SPF.
- Are designed for your affected area of skin (face vs. body). You may need more than one moisturizer for different parts of your body.
When choosing a moisturizer, remember that your skin is unique and a product that works for someone else might not be best for you and your skin. Your healthcare provider or your dermatologist can help you choose skin care products designed for you and your dry skin.
Who treats dry skin?
If you have recurring dry skin or a medical condition that has dry skin as a symptom, your primary care provider might recommend you see a dermatologist to treat your dry skin. A dermatologist is a medical provider who specializes in skin health.
What should I eat or drink with dry skin?
Certain foods and drinks can pull water from your body and cause dehydration. Avoid food and drinks that contain:
Are there side effects of having dry skin?
Untreated or severely dry skin can cause your skin to crack open and bleed. Open sores or wounds from these cracks expose your body to germs that can cause infections. Rarely, dry, itchy skin can indicate a more serious health problem, such as diabetes or kidney disease.
How do I manage symptoms of dry skin?
Keeping your skin moisturized is the best way to manage symptoms of dry skin. The best time of day to apply moisturizer to your skin is:
- When you wake up in the morning.
- Before you go to bed at night.
- After a shower or bath when your skin is damp.
How can I prevent dry skin?
You can prevent dry skin at home by:
- Cleansing with a mild, fragrance-free, moisturizing non-soap cleanser.
- Taking warm (not hot) baths or showers.
- Managing stress, which can aggravate eczema and other skin conditions that cause dry skin.
- Minimizing sun exposure, which evaporates oils and moisture from your skin.
- Moisturizing as soon as you finish bathing, while your skin is damp.
- Patting your skin dry with a soft towel.
- Preventing dehydration.
- Stop smoking, as nicotine dries out your skin.
- Using a humidifier to add moisture to your home’s air.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have dry skin?
Most people can successfully treat dry skin by using a daily moisturizer and taking proactive steps like minimizing exposure to hot temperatures and other irritants. It’s a good idea to take care of dry skin for your overall health. Rough, dry skin can feel uncomfortable and if your skin gets too dry, it can crack and break open, which makes you more prone to infection.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
You should call your healthcare provider if your skin:
- Itches constantly and interferes with sleep or daily activities.
- Looks infected (red, warm or swollen).
- Is painful to the touch.
- Develops a rash.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
If you’re concerned about dry skin, talk to your healthcare provider. You may want to ask:
- What’s making my skin so dry?
- Should I get tested for allergies?
- What are the best treatments for dry skin?
- How can I prevent dry skin?
- What are the best treatments for itchy skin?
- What over-the-counter cleansers and moisturizers do you recommend for dry skin?
- Should I look out for any signs of complications?
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is my skin so dry even when I moisturize?
There could be many reasons why your skin is still dry after using a lotion or a moisturizer, including:
- The moisturizer you’re using contains ingredients that don’t work for your skin type, including isopropyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol or sulfates.
- You’re washing your skin too frequently, or using water that’s too hot, which can lead to dry skin.
- You’re not moisturizing your skin enough throughout the day.
- You’re using the wrong kind of moisturizer for your skin. Use a thick moisturizer at night and a light moisturizer during the day.
- The moisturizer is expired.
- Your dry skin is a symptom of an underlying condition or a condition that needs treatment or management.
If you’re having trouble treating your dry skin, talk with your healthcare provider or a dermatologist.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Dry skin may look rough and flaky and itchy and uncomfortable. Fortunately, dry skin causes few long-term problems. Although it’s typically a chronic condition, dry skin is very manageable. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to prevent and soothe your dry skin. If other conditions, like eczema, cause dry skin, your healthcare provider can prescribe medications and offer tips to treat the condition.
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