Dry skin can be uncomfortable and unattractive. It often shows up as rough, red, and itchy patches in places of the body that show -- arms, hands, lower legs, ankles. But it's also common on the soles of the feet, thighs, and the abdomen.
It can lead to cracks and fissures in the skin. And because cold air outside and heated air inside cause low humidity, it's often worse in winter -- just in time for the holiday party season.
Some dry skin is hereditary. Some comes with aging, as natural skin oils diminish. Some can accompany medical conditions such as asthma or thyroid disease. But daily skin care habits such as washing with harsh soaps, using sanitizing or harsh cleansing agents, and scrubbing can also cause or worsen dry skin.
Since most dry skin is due to external causes, it responds well to external skin care treatment. Just making a few adjustments to your daily skin care routine can help. No matter what the cause, there are many things you can do to make dry skin smooth and supple.
Dry Skin Care Strategies When You Wash
Treating dry skin is important because extensively dry skin can lead to dermatitis, a more severe inflammation of the skin. Try these tips for the bath or shower:
- Skip long, hot showers. Hot water strips oils from the skin faster than warm water. Long showers or baths actually result in dried out skin. Try to limit yourself to a single 5- or 10-minute warm shower or bath a day.
- Use a gentle cleanser or shower gel with moisturizer. Go for unscented, soap-free, or mild soap cleansers instead of harsh cleansers.
- Moisturize while skin is moist. Pat your skin with a towel after you shower or wash your face or hands, leaving it damp. Apply a moisturizer within three to five minutes of washing to lock moisture in your skin.
Ingredients to Look for in a Moisturizer
It's not necessary to pay a fortune for a good, rich moisturizer. Read the label. Ingredients that may be helpful for dry skin include:
- Ceramides. Ceramides help the skin hold water and soothe dry skin. Synthetic ceramides may mimic the natural substances in the outermost layer of skin that help keep moisture in.
- Dimethicone and glycerin. These draw water to the skin and retain it there.
- Hyaluronic acid. Like ceramides, hyaluronic acid helps skin hold water.
- Lanolin, mineral oil, and petroleum jelly. These keep water in the skin that has been absorbed during bathing.
5 Lifestyle Tips for Relieving Dry Skin
These strategies can also help make your skin supple and smooth:
- Plug in a humidifier at home to help keep skin hydrated when indoor air is dry during winter months.
- Wear cotton and other natural fibers. Wool, synthetics, or other fabrics can be scratchy and irritating.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Eat omega-3 foods. Essential fatty acids can help fortify the skin's natural oil-retaining barriers. Foods rich in omega-3 include cold-water fish (salmon, halibut, sardines), flax, walnuts, and safflower oil.
- For itching or inflammation, apply a cool compress or a hydrocortisone cream on the area for a week. If these don't provide relief, talk to your doctor.
Dry Skin: Signs of Dermatitis
Some flaking along with redness may be a sign of an underlying dermatitis. This includes:
- 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 allergic reaction, such as poison ivy. Allergic contact dermatitis of the hands often causes scaling on the fingers.
- Atopic dermatitis. Also known as eczema, 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, a fungal infection, shows up as itchy, flaky skin on the soles of the feet and between the toes. Untreated, it can progress to skin inflammation and redness typical of dermatitis.
WebMD Medical Reference
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Medline Plus: "Dry skin."
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: "Dry skin (xerosis)."
Family Doctor: "Skin Problems: Dry, Itchy Skin."
American Academy of Dermatology (AAD): "Dermatologists' Top 10 Tips for Relieving Dry Skin," "Winter Skin Care Guidelines," "Eczema Bathing and Moisturizing Guidelines."
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD, dermatologist, Egan, Minn.; associate clinical professor of dermatology, University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis.
Dermatology Nursing, Oct. 1, 2006.
Cleveland Clinic: "Dry Skin/Itchy Skin."
Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on October 24, 2011
© 2010 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
Top Dry Skin Related Articles
Athlete's FootAthlete's foot (tinea pedis) is a skin infection caused by the ringworm fungus. Symptoms include itching, burning, cracking, peeling, and bleeding feet. Treatment involves keeping the feet dry and clean, wearing shoes that can breathe, and using medicated powders to keep your feet dry.
Atopic DermatitisEczema is a general term for many types dermatitis (skin inflammation). Atopic dermatitis is the most common of the many types of eczema. Other types of eczema include: contact eczema, allergic contact eczema, seborrheic eczema, nummular eczema, stasis dermatitis, and dyshidrotic eczema.
Skin & Makeup QuizAre you doing right by your skin? Take the Skin and Makeup Quiz to learn how to make the most of your beauty regimen.
People with bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder that involves episodes of bingeing and purging, experience symptoms and signs such as deteriorating teeth, sore throat, constipation, thinning hair, and dehydration. Treatment of bulimia may involve cognitive behavior therapy, family therapy, nutritional counseling, and medication.
Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2)Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. The two types of diabetes are referred to as type 1 (insulin dependent) and type 2 (non-insulin dependent). Symptoms of diabetes include increased urine output, thirst, hunger, and fatigue. Treatment of diabetes depends on the type.
Teen Girls Beauty TipsLearn about DIY skin and hair care for teen girls. Don't let a pimple, bad hair day, or cold sore get in the way of your good looks.
Dry Skin QuizDry, itching, flaky skin? Take the Dry Skin Quiz to learn what's causing your dry skin and what you can do about it beyond lotions and creams.
Your Life & Your SkinSee how your life affects your skin. The choices you make every day affect the appearance of your skin. Learn how to avoid dry skin and wrinkles and to keep your skin healthy with these helpful beauty tips.
Hyperthyroidism is an excess of thyroid hormone due to an overactive thyroid gland. Symptoms can include increased heart rate, weight loss, heart palpitations, frequent bowel movements, depression, fatigue, fine or brittle hair, sleep problems, thinning skin, and irregular vaginal bleeding.
Graves' disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. Many other health problems or taking excess thyroid hormone medication can cause an overactive thyroid gland. Treatment for the condition is with medication, radioactive iodine, thyroid surgery (rarely), or reducing the dose of thyroid hormone. No diet has been shown to treat hyperthyroidism or its symptoms and signs.
PsoriasisPsoriasis is a long-term skin condition that may cause large plaques of red, raised skin, flakes of dry skin, and skin scales. There are several types of psoriasis, including psoriasis vulgaris, guttate psoriasis, inverse psoriasis, and pustular psoriasis. Symptoms vary depending on the type of psoriasis the patient has. Treatment of psoriasis may include creams, lotions, oral medications, injections and infusions of biologics, and light therapy. There is no cure for psoriasis.
Sjogren's SyndromeSjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease involving the abnormal production of extra antibodies that attack the glands and connective tissue. Sjögren's syndrome with gland inflammation (resulting dry eyes and mouth, etc.) that is not associated with another connective tissue disease is referred to as primary Sjögren's syndrome. Sjögren's syndrome that is also associated with a connective tissue disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, or scleroderma, is referred to as secondary Sjögren's syndrome. Though there is no cure for Sjögren's syndrome, the symptoms may be treated by using lubricating eye ointments, drinking plenty of water, humidifying the air, and using glycerin swabs. Medications are also available to treat dry eye and dry mouth.
Skin & Beauty: Anti-Aging Tips & Secrets to Look YoungerLook younger, fight aging, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and skin aging by practicing good skin care. Use of moisturizing cream daily can help women and men maintain a more youthful appearance. Fillers and laser treatments can help you look young, too.
Skin BiopsyDuring a skin biopsy, a piece of skin is removed under a local anesthesia and examined using a microscope. There are different types of skin biopsy:
- shave biopsy,
- punch biopsy,
- and excisional biopsy.
Skin QuizWhat's that all over you? Skin, of course! Test your knowledge of your most amazing organ with the Skin Quiz!
Thyroid CancerThere are four major types of thyroid cancer: papillary, follicular, medullary, and anaplastic thyroid cancer. Tumors on the thyroid are referred to as thyroid nodules. Symptoms of thyroid cancer include swollen lymph nodes, pain in the throat, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, and a lump near the Adam's apple. Treatment usually involves chemotherapy, surgery, radioactive iodine, hormone treatment or external radiation and depends upon the type of thyroid cancer, the patient's age, the tumor size, and whether the cancer has metastasized.
Ways to Wreck Your SkinAvoid skin damage by shunning bad habits like tanning, popping pimples, exfoliating too much, poor diet, smoking, and using the wrong skincare products. Sun damage and other kinds of skin damage are avoidable if you stay away from these bad habits.
What Does a Dermatologist Do?A dermatologist is a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions of the hair, nails, and skin. They can diagnose and treat more than 3,000 diseases of the skin, hair, and nails, as well as cosmetic concerns.
Xerosis PictureAbnormal dryness of the skin (xeroderma), of the conjunctiva of the eye (xerophthalmia), or of the mucous membranes such as dry mouth (xerostomia). See a picture of Xerosis and learn more about the health topic.