Many older people suffer from dry skin, particularly on their lower legs, elbows, and forearms. The skin feels rough and scaly and often is accompanied by a distressing, intense itchiness. Low humidity — caused by overheating during the winter and air conditioning during the summer — contributes to dryness and itching. The loss of sweat and oil glands as you age also may worsen dry skin. Anything that further dries your skin — such as overuse of soaps, antiperspirants, perfumes, or hot baths — will make the problem worse. Dehydration, sun exposure, smoking, and stress also may cause dry skin.
Dry skin itches because it is irritated easily. If your skin is very dry and itchy, see a doctor. Dry skin and itching can affect your sleep, cause irritability, or be a symptom of a disease. For example, diabetes and kidney disease can cause itching. Some medicines make the itchiness worse.
The most common treatment for dry skin is the use of moisturizers to reduce water loss and soothe the skin. Moisturizers come in several forms — ointments, creams, and lotions. Ointments are mixtures of water in oil, usually either lanolin or petrolatum. Creams are preparations of oil in water, which is the main ingredient. Creams must be applied more often than ointments to be most effective. Lotions contain powder crystals dissolved in water, again the main ingredient. Because of their high water content, they feel cool on the skin and don’t leave the skin feeling greasy. Although they are easy to apply and may be more pleasing than ointments and creams, lotions don’t have the same protective qualities. You may need to apply them frequently to relieve the signs and symptoms of dryness. Moisturizers should be used indefinitely to prevent recurrence of dry skin.
A humidifier can add moisture to the air. Bathing less often and using milder soaps also can help relieve dry skin. Warm water is less irritating to dry skin than hot water.
Dry skin care
Dry skin is defined as flaking or scaling--which may or may not be itchy--when there is no evidence of dermatitis, or inflammation, of the skin. Flaking, however, may be a sign of underlying dermatitis (which also is called eczema). There are different types of dermatitis that may cause dry, itchy, flaking skin. They include:
- Seborrheic dermatitis -- This type involves a red, scaly, itchy rash on various areas of the body, particularly those areas that contain many oil glands. Seborrheic dermatitis can occur as scaling on the scalp, eyebrows and sides of the nose.
- Allergic contact dermatitis -- This occurs when the skin comes into contact with a substance that causes an immune reaction, such as poison ivy. Allergic contact dermatitis of the hands often causes scaling on the fingers.
- Atopic dermatitis -- This is a long-lasting type of dermatitis that often runs in families. It also may cause excessively dry, itchy skin.
- Athlete's foot -- In many cases, athlete's foot shows up as dry flaking on the soles of the feet.
Dry skin that is not caused by dermatitis most often occurs on the shins, hands and sides of the abdomen. It is more common during the winter months, when humidity is low. Some people also have a genetic, or hereditary, tendency to develop dry skin. In addition, elderly people tend to have more trouble with dry skin due to the natural changes in skin that occur with age.
Treatment is important because extensively dry skin can lead to dermatitis, or eczema. Dry skin may be prevented or treated by:
- Taking lukewarm baths or showers
- Limiting baths/showers to 5 to 10 minutes
- Applying a moisturizer right after drying off from a shower or washing your hands
- Using a moisturizing body soap and hand soap
- Using heavier creams or ointments during the winter months and lighter lotions in the summer