Dry Skin

  • Medical Author:
    Gary W. Cole, MD, FAAD

    Dr. Cole is board certified in dermatology. He obtained his BA degree in bacteriology, his MA degree in microbiology, and his MD at the University of California, Los Angeles. He trained in dermatology at the University of Oregon, where he completed his residency.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Dry Skin Quiz

Question: Are most cases of dry skin caused by disease or infection?

Take our quiz to find the answer and test your knowledge about dry skin.

Dry skin facts

  • Dry skin is a very common condition that causes small fine flakes and dry patches.
  • Itching is one of the most common symptoms of dry skin.
  • Scratching may be hard to resist.
  • Dry skin is more common in colder winter months and drier climates.
  • The elderly are more prone to dry skin than younger people.
  • Dry skin is more common in individuals with a history of eczema.
  • Dry skin may rarely be a side effect of certain medications.
  • Dry skin is more common in those with hypothyroidism.
  • Repeat itch-scratch cycles may lead to skin thickening and darkening.
  • Possible complications include rashes, eczema, and bacterial infections.
  • Extremely dry skin can cause cracks and breaks in the skin.
  • Medications including topical corticosteroids and lubricating lotions and creams can help ease itching.
  • Secondary infections may result from scratches and skin breakdown.
  • Topical or oral antibiotics may be necessary for secondarily infected dry skin.
  • Several home remedies, such as decreasing bathing frequency and lubricating the skin with moisturizers after showers, can help control and prevent dry skin.

What is dry skin?

Dry skin is a very common skin condition characterized by a lack of the appropriate amount of water in the most superficial layer of the skin, the epidermis. While dry skin tends to affect males and females equally, older individuals are typically much more prone to dry skin. The skin in elderly individuals tends to have diminished amounts of natural skin oils and lubricants. Areas such as the arms, hands, and particularly lower legs tend to be more affected by dry skin. Dryness of the skin is affected by the amount of water vapor in the surrounding air, the humidity. Dry skin is also known as xeroderma or (xerosic dermatitis).

Dry skin may be a mild, temporary condition lasting a few days to weeks. Dry skin may also become a more severe, long-term skin problem for some. Symptoms of dry skin include discomfort from skin tightness and itching. In addition, external factors such as weather can affect the severity of skin dryness. For example, cold or dry air and winter weather can worsen dry skin. Individuals whose occupations require more frequent hand-washing and sanitizing may experience dry skin more often. Dry skin may also be a side effect of some medications.

The epidermis is normally composed of fat (lipid) and protein. The lipid portion of the epidermis helps prevent skin dehydration. When the skin's fatty oils are removed, the skin loses its protection and loses moisture more easily. As skin becomes dry, it also may become more sensitive and prone to rashes and skin breakdown. This condition is sometimes referred to as xerosis. Dry skin may be an entirely invisible skin condition, or may cause a fine dry powder-like appearance of the skin. Untreated, dry skin may become irritated and result in a red rash (xerodermatitis).

Simple prevention and treatment measures are very effective in the treatment of dry skin. Basic dry skin prevention steps include avoidance of harsh soaps and chemical cleansers. Treatment generally requires more frequent and regular applications of bland emollients and moisturizers. Untreated, dry skin may result in complications, including, eczema, secondary bacterial infections, cellulitis, and skin discoloration. Fortunately, dry skin is usually mild and can be easily remedied.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/26/2016
Dry Skin Quiz: Test Your Dry Skin IQ

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