The Complete Guide for How to Treat Dry Skin
Dry skin is usually not a serious condition, but it can be itchy and unsightly. In some cases, severe dry skin problems can lead to infection and disfigurement if left untreated. The good news is that most of the time you can control the factors that cause or aggravate dry skin and even reverse some of its annoying effects. Understanding the condition and its causes, and knowing how best to treat dry skin, is the start of the journey towards a complexion that appears visibly soft and comfortably hydrated.
Getting to grips with dry skin
If you have dry skin you are not alone. It’s a common skin condition that affects men and women in equal numbers. Dry skin that occurs at a very young age is less common, but as we get older and our bodies produce fewer natural oils and lubricants, our skin becomes increasingly prone to dryness. Even for those without dry skin, environmental factors and increasing age mean we’re all likely to deal with the condition at some point in our lives. Our arms, hands, and lower legs are the areas that are most often affected.
Dry skin is simply a lack of the right amount of water in the most superficial layer of the skin called the epidermis. This layer of the skin is made up of fat – also called lipid – and protein. Lipid and epidermal proteins help prevent skin dehydration.
Think of your skin as a barrier against the environment, with three layers of defense:
- The hypodermis is the deepest layer. It’s made up of mainly adipose tissue, with vessels and nerves.
- The dermis is connective tissue – that’s where you’ll find collagen and elastin fibers, blood vessels, oil and sweat glands, and hair follicles.
- The epidermis is the outer layer and is made up of keratinocytes. These cells divide and mature, then make their way from the basal layer to the outermost compartment of the epidermis. Keratinocytes have an insoluble structure made of several proteins tucked into lipid layers that are made up of cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides. The epidermis provides the skin with hydration, and lipids play an important role in holding onto water so it evaporates as slowly as possible. Sweat and oil glands provide the skin with natural moisturizers.
Dry skin happens when the lipids and/or proteins in the epidermis are depleted and do not stop moisture evaporating easily from the skin. If there is not enough water in the outer layer of skin, it will not function properly. Soft, plump skin owes its attractiveness to its water content.
Dry skin includes one or more of these symptoms:
- A tightness of the skin, especially after showering or swimming
- Skin that feels rough to the touch
- Flaking, scaling or peeling
- Fine lines or cracks
- Skin that is dull and has gray tones
- Deep cracks that may even bleed
Understanding dry skin conditions
Most of the time dry skin is an uncomfortable but temporary condition that can be easily treated with skin care products for dry skin, and by controlling the environmental factors that may aggravate the condition. Dry skin usually falls into one of two categories:
- Dry skin that has hereditary or environmental causes and is mild and easily treatable with dry skin care creams and serums, and a few small lifestyle changes.
- More serious dry skin conditions – like eczema and psoriasis – can cause a breakdown in the skin, making it more prone to complications, secondary bacterial infections, and skin discoloration. These skin conditions usually need the help of a skin doctor – a dermatologist.
Anyone can develop dry skin at any stage of life, but there are factors that increase your risk of developing the condition:
- Weather plays a big part in drying out the skin. If you live in a climate that is dry, cold or has low humidity, you’re more likely to struggle with dry skin at some point in your life.
- Aging is one of the most common causes of dry skin. In fact, more than 50% of people over the age of 40 have dry skin.
- Your job might be putting you at risk of developing a dry skin condition if you often have to immerse your skin in water – so if you’re a nurse, hairstylist, or hydro therapist (frequent swimming in chlorinated pools puts the skin at particular risk), for example, your risk of suffering from dry skin is more severe.
1. Mild dry skin types
If your skin type tends towards dryness, then you might have inherited this condition from your parents or grandparents. A study at the University of Dundee, Scotland, found that mutations in the genes that look after the production of the protein filaggrin (you’ll remember that this protein in the epidermis plays a role in forming and hydrating the skin’s barrier), can cause a person to have drier skin and more of a chance of developing skin conditions like eczema.
As the saying goes, “prevention is better than cure” – so if your skin is prone to dryness, or if dry skin runs in the family, it's important to look after your skin carefully by using a daily dry skin care routine. Ideally, dry skin products should include ingredients like ceramides and lipids to build up a healthy skin barrier.
Dry skin can also be caused by hormone imbalances (especially during menopause), as well as hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism. In the elderly, dry skin can be caused by keratinocytes which move more slowly from the basal layer of the epidermis to the outer layer of the epidermis while the oil glands produce less oil.
Mild and temporary dry skin is most often caused by:
- Cold weather
- Heating of interior spaces in winter
- Hot baths and showers
- Swimming often in heavily chlorinated pools
- Harsh soaps and detergents.
2. Severe dry skin conditions
More severe dry skin conditions can happen for three main reasons: an inherited condition, a bacterial infection that can cause the skin to split open if left untreated, or an increasing sensitivity to certain environmental factors.
- Ichthyosis is a group of disorders characterized by severely dry skin. The most common form of this inherited condition is ichthyosis vulgaris. This fine scaling of the skin – which is usually worst on the legs – presents in the first few months of a baby’s life. In these cases, medical intervention is crucial.
- Skin that becomes dry – the medical terms is xerosis – and is left untreated can become more sensitive and prone to rashes and skin breakdown. When skin is severely dry it can even split or crack open, allowing bacteria to enter the skin and cause infection. Simple treatments include using only gentle cleansers and rich, dry skin appropriate moisturizers and serums.
- Skin can become sensitive to chemicals and environmental factors over time. This sensitivity can manifest as dry skin.
Serious dry skin conditions that can be inherited, or caused by an allergic reaction to environmental factors include eczema and psoriasis.
Eczema (the most common type being atopic dermatitis, also called allergic dermatitis or contact eczema) can develop when the body is exposed to something that could make you sick. Your immune system springs into action, causing chemical changes in the body to help you fight off disease. An allergic reaction happens when your immune system goes too far in defending your body against a threat, which can result in itchy skin or a rash. This usually happens within 48 hours of coming into contact with the allergen. Allergic dermatitis can be caused by nickel in jewelry, buttons or buckles, latex, dyes, perfumes, soaps and detergents, adhesives, certain plants like poison ivy, or even antibiotic creams and ointments. Certain chemicals can also cause allergic eczema when exposed to sunlight.
Psoriasis can be a debilitating autoimmune condition that causes skin’s usual production processes to speed up – this results in a rapid buildup of skin cells and can look like whitish-silver scales that develop in thick, red patches. Skin compromised by psoriasis can crack and bleed, and lead to secondary infection. Psoriasis scales usually appear on joints, such as elbows and knees, but can also develop on the hands, feet, neck, scalp, face, or anywhere on the body. The condition is also associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, psoriatic arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), estimates that about 7.5 million Americans have psoriasis.
It’s advisable to speak to your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you have one of these conditions. Without early diagnosis and treatment of dermatitis, these conditions will worsen.
Managing dry skin conditions
Environmental factors and lifestyle choices have an effect on the amount of water our skin retains. We’ve put together a list of factors that can help to prevent and even heal dry skin for a complexion that appears visibly soft and hydrated throughout the year.
Many commercial household products have chemical ingredients that strip skin of essential water and oils and can lead to irritated, dry skin. This includes dish liquids, floor and wood polishes, general cleaners, air fresheners, and laundry detergent. A number of household products manufactured without harsh chemicals are now readily available for purchase online and in stores.
Wear a pair of non-latex gloves whenever you do household chores. This will protect the skin on your hands, which tends to take a daily beating from exposure to the elements, regular contact with dirt, frequent washing, and the substances that cover the objects we choose to pick up or touch. If you haven’t been able to source a pair of non-latex clovers (latex can be an allergen for some people) then you could first put on a pair of soft cotton gloves and pull on rubber gloves over these.
A common cause of skin irritation in many households is exposure to microscopic dust mites that can inflame and irritate dry skin. Banish skin-irritating mites by regularly vacuuming floors and carpets. Wash your bedding in water heated to 130 degrees, and don’t forget your mattress: give it a thorough vacuum at least once a month - and if it’s old, get a new one!
Hand sanitizers are a common sight today in doctor’s rooms, and you’ll be familiar with the sanitizing wipes offered to shoppers to sanitize the handles of supermarket carts. With the threat of flu and other contaminants, hand sanitizers are a good idea, but they usually have a high alcohol content which dries out the skin. Opt for hydrating hand sanitizers that are recommended by a dermatologist.
If you have a daily swim in a chlorinated pool or if you or your kids plan to spend days around the pool this summer, make sure you step under a cool shower after your swim to rinse the chlorine off your skin – and follow with a rich moisturizer for dry skin.
Avoid hot showers and always wash your face in water that is as close to room-temperature as possible. Hot water breaks down the natural oils on the skin’s surface and dries out the skin. Also limit the time you spend in the tub or shower to no more than 10 minutes and try not to bathe more than once a day.
Ditch the harsh soaps and cleansers. One of the biggest culprits of dry skin is soaps, cleansers and toners that contain alcohol and harsh chemicals. Look for products that are alcohol-free and have ingredients that nourish, hydrate and restore the natural balance of the skin – to promote visible hydration and skin that is perfectly prepped to receive all the goodness your moisturizer can deliver for the best dry skin care.
It’s likely you have ingredients in your grocery cupboard that can help to soothe and heal dry skin. The EFAs (essential fatty acids) in coconut oil pack a punch for dry skin. You can include it in your cooking and diet, or rub it straight onto your skin for immediate relief. Another grocery cupboard ingredient that has been used to treat dry skin for centuries is oatmeal. The chemicals found in oatmeal – avenanthramides – help to combat inflammation and redness, and reduce the itch. Take an oatmeal bath by grinding oatmeal in a blender, sprinkle into the tub while the water is running then soak for 15 minutes or more.
Shaving can severely compromise dry skin – so start by softening your skin before shaving. You can leave a hydrating shaving cream or gel on the skin for three minutes before you start to shave. It also helps to shave right after showering when hair is softer. Always shave in the direction that the hair grows and remember to change razor blades after every seven shaves - a dull blade will aggravate dry skin.
Cover up when outdoors in winter with scarves and gloves - and don’t forget to protect your lips from chapping with a barrier cream or lip balm. It’s best to avoid wearing wool and synthetic fabrics if you have dry skin. Wool can be scratchy and irritate the skin, and chemicals are often used in these fabrics, which can worsen compromised skin.
Dry Skin Frequently Asked Questions
Dry skin develops for a number of reasons. Most of the time, dry skin is caused by external factors that can be easily addressed. Internal factors can include medical conditions, genetics and family history, age, and general health. The best way to begin to treat or manage dry skin conditions is by getting to know the facts. So, we’ve put together the most common questions about dry skin and given you the answers that will set you on a journey to skin that is visibly glowing, even-toned, and beautifully hydrated.
Should I see a doctor about my dry skin?
While most cases of dry skin respond well to trusted dry skin products and lifestyle changes, there are dry skin conditions that need a doctor’s intervention. It’s best to speak to a dermatologist if:
- You’ve tried over-the-counter remedies and made the necessary lifestyle changes but your skin still shows no sign of improvement
- Skin itches so much that you can’t sleep at night
- Dry skin is red and inflamed
- Dry skin is spread over large areas and the skin is scaly or peeling
- Skin becomes infected from scratching
When skin is extremely dry and cracks or splits, bacteria enters the body and can cause infection. Without a dermatologist’s help, the condition can worsen quickly. After careful examination, your doctor will be able to tell if your dry skin is a symptom of a skin disease, make an accurate diagnosis and prescribe a treatment or series of treatments.
Does a cold climate cause dry skin?
Yes, a cold, low-humidity climate does have a drying effect on the skin. If skin is exposed to very cold weather it can become red, rough, and itchy. This is because the water content in the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis) tends to adapt to the ambient humidity around it. Fortunately, there are ways to send common winter itch, or winter xerosis, packing.
If you can’t move to balmy Hawaii or vacation in New Orleans (both have a high-humidity environment) you can still keep skin soft and healthy through winter by wearing cotton or natural fiber clothing. Unlike wool and synthetic fabrics, natural cloth is usually not treated with chemicals and has a smoother surface that will not irritate or roughen dry skin. You can also use a humidifier, resist the urge to have long hot baths, and explore the great cleansers, moisturizers, and serums that are especially formulated to get the best visible results for dry skin.
Can a hot shower dry out my skin?
Hot showers and baths tend to wash away the skin’s natural oils and you could lose moisture more quickly. Additional dryness can happen when the water from your bath or shower evaporates from you skin.
It’s best to limit your shower to no more than 10 minutes once a day and keep the water temperature lukewarm. Your skin will tell you if it’s happy after a shower – it should never feel tight or itchy – and remember to never scrub or rub at dry skin during a shower.
Is it true that water can dry out my skin?
Tap water can sometimes have a high concentration of minerals like magnesium, lead, and zinc. This is also called “hard water.” These minerals cause dryness on the skin when they leave behind a film or coating. In some cases, if concentrations of heavy metals in water are especially high, they can thicken the natural oils on skin and block glands. This has a particularly bad effect on some dry skin conditions and can even prevent moisturizers from being properly absorbed by the skin.
If the area you live in has hard water, you can install a filtration system at home. This will lighten the mineral content of water. Skin care products for dry skin that contain vitamins A and C can also help to combat a hard water coating on the skin.
Can fragrance dry out my skin?
Fragrances, used in deodorants, skin care soaps, creams, shampoos, and many household products can irritate dry skin conditions. Look out for products that have ingredients like bean-based butters – cocoa and shea, for instance – or vanilla and honey, to name just a few.
Do humidifiers help dry skin?
Portable home humidifiers increase the level of humidity indoors and can counteract the effects of winter air which roughens and dries out the skin. It’s recommended that you set your humidifier level between 30% and 60% - this is usually enough to replenish the water content in the skin’s epidermis. Remember to fill the humidifier with distilled or demineralized water, which should be replaced on a daily basis.
Is it a good idea to exfoliate dry skin?
Bath sponges, scrub brushes, and rough washcloths can damage or aggravate dry skin. If you’re particularly attached to your bath sponge then be sure to use a light touch. If possible, opt for soft cotton washcloths and towels – and try never to rub the skin. Blotting or patting will usually get the job done.
Can I use soap on dry skin?
One of the most common causes of dry skin is the use of harsh soaps that strip the skin of moisture. The chemicals used in soaps can worsen more serious dry skin conditions. Spend some time choosing face and body washes carefully, as well as laundry detergents. If you have dry skin you should use gentle cleansing creams or gels, and there are a number of laundry detergents and fabric softeners that do not contain parabens or phosphates.
I’ve heard that acne treatments cause dry skin – is this true?
The chemical exfoliants used in many acne treatments — retinol, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide — can dry out the skin. Cutting down on the amount of product you use, as well as how often you use these products, could be enough to counteract any dryness caused by acne treatments. You can also speak to your dermatologist about using a gentle cleanser before applying the treatment and the best moisturizers to buffer the drying side effects of acne treatments.
Do some medications cause dry skin?
There are medicines that cause or worsen dry skin in some individuals. These include medicines for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as allergy and acne medications. This is not to say that these medicines cause dry skin for everyone who takes them. This will only be the case for some individuals. Dry skin can also be a sign of an internal medical condition like diabetes, hypothyroidism, and malnutrition, or allergic or autoimmune conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
What can I do to relieve itchy skin?
The most important thing to remember about relieving itchy skin is, never scratch. This can scrape open the skin and introduce bacteria to the wound which in turn can cause infection. You can relieve dry skin itch by applying a cool damp cloth to the affected area, or a medical cream, or dry skin moisturizer specially formulated to soothe inflammation and itchiness.
Can I still tan if I have dry skin?
Sun exposure will almost always dry out your skin by reducing its natural oil levels. Dry skin is further aggravated by UV rays that penetrate deep below the skin's surface, which also cause wrinkles and sagging in addition to dryness.
Before spending time in the sun, make sure dry skin is well-moisturized and that a moisturizing sunscreen with the right SPF (sun protection factor) has been applied at least 10 minutes after your moisturizer and 10 to 15 minutes before applying make-up or heading out into the sun.
Reapply your sunscreen throughout the day if you’re going to be in direct sunlight or taking part in sports and swimming. Remember that what you do after a day in the sun is as important as your preparations for a day at the beach – so invest in best quality after sun skin care products that will soothe and hydrate dry skin.
How to Treat Dry Skin
Dry skin is a common condition that, in most cases, can be easily managed by understanding the condition and taking some simple steps to care for your skin. Using the right beauty products for dry skin is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that dry skin does not persist or worsen.
Dry skin care: face
Always begin your dry skin beauty routine with a mild cleanser. Harsh soaps strip the skin of its natural oils and will make your skin even drier. Look out for gentle cleansers that refresh, gently cleanse and soften dry skin. If skin-drying “hard water” is a problem in your area, a cleansing milk gently lifts away make-up and impurities with no need for water. If your beauty routine includes a toner, make sure that the toner you use is gentle and alcohol-free. A gentle toner removes every last trace of cleanser, leaving even the most sensitive skin visibly soft, comfortable, and refreshed.
Dry skin care: body
The most common dry skin areas on the body are the arms and lower legs. Dry skin can also result in small, red, raised bumps on the legs and the arms – resist the urge to scrub at the skin. This can open the spots and they can become infected if scratched.
Try a body treatment oil with 100% pure plant extracts. The rule of thumb with oils and moisturizers is that it’s best to apply them within three to five minutes after stepping out of your bath or the shower, while the skin is still damp. Remember to keep showers cool and use soft natural fiber washcloths and towels.
Dry skin care: lips
Lips can become chapped in cold weather or following an illness. Fortunately there are a number of effective products on the market to moisturize, nourish, and protect dry lips.
Keep these tips in mind to prevent or treat dry lips:
- Try not to lick your lips. Saliva evaporating from your lips will dry them out.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Stay hydrated from the inside by drinking fluids throughout the day, while you can hydrate from the outside by moistening the air with a portable home humidifier.
- Protect lips against the cold. Apply a lubricating lip cream or balm often in cold, dry weather, and more often when you’re outdoors. Cover your lips with a scarf when it’s extremely cold outside.
- Constantly breathing through your lips can dry them out, so breathe through your nose as much as possible.
Dry skin care: eyes
There is usually no need to panic if dry skin develops on the eyelids or around the eyes. This delicate skin is especially vulnerable to cold weather and fluctuating moisture levels in the body. Fortunately, there are a number of creams and balms for treating dry skin around the eyes on the market. If dry skin around the eyes and on the eyelids persists, consult your doctor to rule out any underlying health conditions that may be causing the excessive dryness, and remember to always use a gentle eye makeup remover to avoid worsening dry skin around the eyes.
Dry skin care: scalp
An itchy, dry, flaky scalp is more common than you may think. Most often the cause is a condition called seborrheic dermatitis, also called seborrheic eczema or babies cradle cap. Some people have just a mild flaking of the scalp – which is commonly called “dandruff” – while in others the condition is so severe it causes thick, greasy scales on the scalp. In severe cases, a doctor should always be consulted. In mild cases treatment usually includes topical lotions or shampoos, while severe cases of seborrheic dermatitis may need topical steroid lotions available only on prescription.
Dry skin care: after-sun exposure
After a day in the sun, dry skin needs extra TLC. Cool your skin off by taking a lukewarm shower, using a gentle body cleanser. While the skin is still damp from your shower, apply a refreshing after sun skin care product.
Tip: keeping your After Sun Gel in the fridge will give heated skin an extra dose of cool!