Dry Skin

Overview

What is dry skin?

Dry skin is skin that doesn’t have enough moisture in it to keep it feeling soft and supple. People with dry skin may have rough-feeling patches that flake off or look scaly. It may or may not be itchy (pruritis). Severe dry skin may crack and bleed.

How common is dry skin?

Dry skin is a common condition that affects people of all ages.

Who’s most likely to get dry skin?

People who live in dry climates, work outside or wash their hands frequently get dry skin. Dry skin can be related to some health issues, like allergies, hormones, and diabetes.

Older people are more prone to dry skin for many reasons:

  • Moisture-producing oil and sweat glands dry up.
  • Skin becomes thinner.
  • Fat and collagen, substances that gives skin its elasticity, decrease.

What are the types of dry skin?

Your healthcare provider may use the medical term for dry skin: xerosis. Dry skin is often made worse during the winter because of low humidity. However, it can occur year-round. If it’s severe, dry skin can cause itching and rashes called dermatitis (inflammation of skin). There are several different types of dermatitis, including:

  • Contact dermatitis: This occurs when something comes into contact with your skin, which 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 (atopic dermatitis): This group of skin conditions causes red, dry, bumpy and itchy patches of skin. Severe forms can cause cracking of the skin, which makes you more prone to infection. This common skin disorder often affects children and can be inherited. Irritants, allergens and stress can make eczema worse.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis: Dry skin on the scalp causes a condition known as dandruff in adults or cradle cap in infants. Seborrheic dermatitis can also cause dry, flaky skin patches on the face, navel (belly button) and inside creases of the arms, legs or groin. This type of dermatitis is actually caused when your body reacts to a normal yeast that grows on your skin.
  • Athlete’s foot: This can mimic dry skin on the feet, but it is actually caused by a fungus. When this fungus grows on the body, it’s called “ringworm”. People who have athlete’s foot may have dry, flaky skin on the soles of their feet.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes dry skin?

You can develop dry skin for many reasons, including:

  • Age: Older adults are more prone to dry skin due to natural skin changes. As you age, oil and sweat glands dry up, and skin loses fat and elasticity, causing it to become thinner.
  • Climate: People who live in dry, desert-like environments are more prone to dry skin because there’s less moisture, or humidity, in the air.
  • Genetics: Some people inherit certain skin conditions, such as eczema, that cause dry skin.
  • Health conditions: Some illnesses, including diabetes and kidney disease, can cause dry, itchy skin.
  • Occupations: Healthcare providers, hairstylists and other professionals are more likely to develop dry, red skin because they wash hands frequently.

What are the symptoms of dry skin?

Signs of dry skin include:

  • Cracked, rough-looking skin.
  • Flakes or scales.
  • Itchiness.
  • Redness.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is dry skin diagnosed?

Dry skin is fairly easy to diagnose by its appearance. Depending on your symptoms, your healthcare provider may order tests to check for health conditions that cause dry skin, such as:

  • Allergy test to identify substances that cause allergic reactions.
  • Blood test to check for problems like diabetes or kidney disease.
  • Skin biopsy (tissue sample) to test for eczema or other skin conditions.

Management and Treatment

How is itchy dry skin managed or treated?

Your healthcare provider may recommend moisturizing your skin with:

  • Moisturizers: Moisturizers are the mainstay 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.
  • Medications: For extremely dry skin that’s itchy or prone to cracking, your healthcare provider may prescribe a topical steroid or other steroid-sparing agent, both of which act to decrease the inflammation in the skin that causes the rash and itching. In severe cases, oral or injectable medication may be appropriate.

What are the complications of dry skin?

Skin that’s too dry may crack open and bleed. These cracks expose the body to germs that can cause infections. Rarely, dry, itchy skin can indicate a more serious health problem, such as diabetes or kidney disease.

Prevention

How can I prevent dry skin?

Applying moisturizers every day can help soften dry skin. You can also try these at-home methods:

  • Cleanse with a mild, fragrance-free, moisturizing soap.
  • Limit showers or baths to no longer than 10 minutes, and use warm (not hot) water.
  • Manage stress (it can aggravate eczema and other skin conditions).
  • Minimize sun exposure, which evaporates oils and moisture from the skin.
  • Moisturize as soon as you finish bathing, while your skin is damp and soft.
  • Pat skin dry with a soft towel.
  • Prevent dehydration and keep skin hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Stop smoking (nicotine reduces blood flow, which dries out skin).
  • Use a humidifier to add moisture to your home’s air.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with dry skin?

Most people can successfully treat dry skin by using a daily moisturizer and taking proactive steps like minimizing exposure to hot water 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 look unsightly. And if your skin gets so dry skin that it cracks open, you’ll be more prone to infections.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

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 touch.
  • Develops a rash.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

If you’re concerned about skin dryness, talk to your healthcare provider. You may want to ask:

  • What is making my skin to so dry?
  • Should I get tested for allergies or eczema?
  • 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?

Summary

Dry skin may look unattractive, and dry, itchy, flaky skin feels uncomfortable. Fortunately, dry skin causes few long-term problems. Although it is typically a chronic condition, it is very manageable. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to prevent and soothe dry skin. If other conditions, like eczema, cause dry skin, your healthcare provider can prescribe medications and offer tips to treat the problem.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/13/2020.

References

  • American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Dry Skin: Overview. (https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/dry-skin-overview) Accessed 5/15/2020.
  • American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Pruritis. (https://familydoctor.org/condition/pruritis/) Accessed 5/15/2020.
  • Merck Manual. Itching. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/skin-disorders/itching-and-dermatitis/itching) Accessed 5/15/2020.
  • National Eczema Association. Managing Itch. (https://nationaleczema.org/eczema/itchy-skin/) Accessed 5/15/2020.
  • National Institute on Aging. Skin Care and Aging. (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/skin-care-and-aging) Accessed 5/15/2020.

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