Dry skin is a common problem, especially in older people but can affect anyone. While it usually only causes mild discomfort, in some cases it can lead to complications such as skin infections due to cracking. Dry skin can also be a sign of other conditions or diseases. Many things can cause it, and what you can do it about it depends on what brought it on.
Dry skin occurs when skin doesn’t retain sufficient moisture. This can happen as a result of frequent bathing, use of harsh soaps, aging, or certain medical conditions. And for those in colder climates, it can stem from cold, dry winter air.
But, you can do a lot on your own to improve your skin such as using moisturizers and avoiding harsh, drying soaps. However, chronic or severe dry skin problems may require evaluation by a doctor who specializes in skin (dermatologist).
Causes of dry skin
Many factors can cause your skin to dry out. Some of the main causes of dry skin are:
- low humidity weather (e.g. during winter and in certain climates)
- heaters, fires and air conditioners (these reduce humidity in the room)
- prolonged or frequent bathing or showering in hot water
- using certain soaps and detergents when you wash (especially those that are heavily perfumed, or antibacterial)
- sleeping with an electric blanket turned on
- exposing your skin to the sun
- putting drying chemicals on your skin, such as alcohol
- abnormalities in some of your skin cells that affect the integrity of your skin barrier, such as inherited problems with structural components of the skin.
People at risk for dry skin?
You may be at risk of developing dry skin if you:
- are in 50s or older
- live in a dry climate
- often swim in pools
- work in an occupation that means your skin is often wet such as construction
- are a post-menopausal woman
- have conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, dermatitis
- are malnourished
- are taking certain medications such as diuretics, lipid-lowering drugs.
Dry skin is often temporary e.g. you get it only in winter. But it may be a lifelong condition. Signs and symptoms of dry skin depend on your age, your health, where you live, time spent outdoors and the cause of the problem. Dry skin is likely to cause one or more of the following:
- A feeling of skin tightness, especially after showering, bathing or swimming
- Skin that feels and looks rough
- Itching (pruritus)
- Slight to severe flaking, scaling or peeling
- Fine lines or cracks
- Gray, ashy skin
- Deep cracks that may bleed
Tips to Combat Dry Skin
These tips can help to soothe dry patches on your face and body.
1. Bathe wisely
Water can strip your skin of its oils, leading to dryness. Limit baths or showers to five to 10 minutes, and use warm water, not hot. Choose mild soaps, and don’t over lather. When it’s time to dry off, blot your skin with a towel rather than rubbing it.
Ointments, creams, and lotions are moisturizers. However, ointments and creams are more effective and less irritating than lotions. Look for a cream or ointment that contains an oil such as olive oil or jojoba oil. Shea butter also works well. They work by trapping existing moisture in your skin. To trap this much-needed moisture, you need to apply a moisturizer immediately after bathing and each time you wash your face.
3. Use unscented skin products
You may get dry patches on your face because you’re sensitive or allergic to fragrances, dyes, or a chemical in the product. Stop using those products to see if that makes a difference. When you’re shopping for cosmetics, choose products labeled hypoallergenic and fragrance free. Products that contain retinoids or alcohol are especially drying, so avoid them in the winter.
4. Wear lip balm
Choose a lip balm that feels good on your lips. Some healing lip balms can irritate your lips. If your lips sting or tingle after you apply the lip balm, switch to one that does not cause this reaction.
5. Use a humidifier
Dry indoor air can contribute to facial dryness, particularly in the winter. Use a humidifier in your home to add moisture and prevent dry, flaky skin. Set it to around 60%, a level that should be sufficient to replenish the top layer of the skin.
6. Wear gloves
If you have to immerse your hands in water or are using harsh cleansers, wearing gloves can help protect your skin. Also, be sure to put gloves on before you go outdoors in winter or touch chemicals.
7. Choose non-irritating clothes and laundry detergent
Wear natural fibers, such as cotton and silk, because they allow your skin to breathe. (Wool, though natural, can sometimes irritate your skin.) Use detergent that doesn’t have dyes or perfumes, and cover up when the air is dry to help your body keep moisture.
When to see a doctor
It’s best to ask your doctor for medical advice if your:
- skin is broken or becomes infected
- skin is looking red and inflamed
- symptoms are interfering with your sleep
- you can see white patches or silvery scales on your skin
- skin is peeling off
- the person affected by dry skin is a child.