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Dry Skin: Causes and Treatments

by Berkeley Wellness  

Dry skin can occur in people of all ages, although it is more commonly seen in older adults who have lost much of the natural moisture and oil from their skin. Dry skin is aggravated by cold weather.

Symptoms include itching, scaling, cracking, flaking, and chapping of the skin. The skin may appear gray or ashen in people with dark skin. Common sites of dry skin include the lower legs, thighs, back, abdomen, waist, arms, and hands. In severe cases, the skin may crack and bleed. Cold weather can also cause nails to break and cuticles to roughen.

What causes dry skin?

Throughout much of life, secretions from oil and sweat glands help to moisten the skin and prevent dryness. As you age, however, natural secretions decrease. Cold weather, dry air, harsh skin-care products, too-frequent bathing, smoking, stress, and certain medications also contribute to dry skin. Certain conditions or illnesses, including some mineral deficiencies, kidney disease, thyroid disease, HIV, or malignancies can also cause dry skin. Swimming pools, with high levels of chlorine, can also dry out the skin.

What if you do nothing?

In most cases dry skin will eventually clear on its own once the humidity increases. However, the unsightly appearance and itching may be too much to bear until the weather finally changes.

Home remedies for dry skin

There are effective and inexpensive ways to take care of dry skin.

  • Take short baths or showers, use lukewarm water, and bathe no more than once a day. Keeping baths or showers to 5 to 10 minutes will add moisture to your skin, but any longer will decrease skin hydration. Cut bathing back to two or three times a week during the cold winter months. Sponge bathe the rest of the time. Overbathing in a tub may cause damage to skin cell membranes, possibly by removing essential body oils.
  • Avoid aggressive or excessive scrubbing. Excessively washing and scrubbing your skin can worsen dry skin.
  • Use mild cleansers. Choose a milder soap and use as little of it as you can. Traditional soaps such as Ivory, Dial, or Irish Spring are known to alkalize the skin and damage the natural skin moisture barrier, worsening dry skin. Synthetic detergent cleansers such as Dove, Olay, or Cetaphil are more mild and preferred. These cleansers have a natural pH closer to that of skin, so are less irritating.
  • Use a minimal amount of soap while bathing. For most showers, using soap only under your armpits, around the groin, and on your face should be enough.
  • Soften skin before shaving. Shaving is less irritating when hair is soft. Soften your skin with a cream or gel before shaving, let it set in for a few minutes, and then shave in the same direction that the hair grows.
  • Switch razors often. A dull blade can irritate your skin and exacerbate the problem.
  • Pat yourself dry instead of rubbing. Gentle patting is less irritating than vigorous rubbing.
  • Moisturize. Apply a moisturizing oil or lotion, especially after a bath or shower. Avoid products that contain rubbing alcohol. “Trap” moisture by moisturizing immediately after bathing with petroleum jelly (Vaseline, for example). “Drag” moisture into the skin by using products that contain urea, glycerin, lactic acid, or similar ‘metabolic’ acids (AmLactin Cream, Carmol). Help the skin maintain its protective role with ceramides (CeraVe, for example).
  • Make sure all clothing that touches your skin is well rinsed when washed. Try switching to a detergent that contains no perfume (fragrance). Discontinue fabric softeners, bleaches, and other wash ingredients. (You may be able to return to your regular washing routine later.)
  • Wear cotton. It’s easier on your skin compared with wool or synthetics, whose rough texture tends to catch and move the skin scales, leading to a vicious cycle of itching and scratching. Permanent press and wrinkle-resistant fabrics may have formaldehyde or other irritating chemicals in their finish. Wash new clothing and towels before using them.
  • Try not to scratch. You may irritate the skin further. If symptoms persist, apply a hydrocortisone cream to your skin. Don’t use alcohol-based products to combat itching because alcohol dries out skin.

How to prevent dry skin

  • Keep the indoor temperature at 68?F in the winter. This saves fuel as well as skin by increasing the relative humidity. If this isn’t possible, use a humidifier to raise humidity and slow dehydration.
  • Avoid toasting yourself in front of a fire or woodstove. Wood heat—because it is so hot if you’re near enough to get really warm—is extremely drying.
  • Drink plenty of water. Internal hydration also helps keep your skin hydrated.
  • Stay out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Too much sun causes dryness, and it is the leading cause of skin cancer. Use facial moisturizers that contain sunscreen.
  • Use a moisturizer after bathing. Moisturizing ingredients trap moisture and change the surface of the skin.
  • Avoid air conditioning whenever possible. Going from a humid environment into an air-conditioned room where the relative humidity is low causes water to be lost from your skin. Using a humidifier may be help. Run the humidifier until the room has an indoor relative humidity of 50 percent.
  • Use liquid soap whenever possible. Liquid soaps are milder than most soap bars.

Moisturizers for dry skin

Moisturizers work just on the skin’s surface to relieve the flaking, itching, and tightness that characterize dry skin. Despite the claims in advertisements, these creams and lotions—even if they contain vitamin E, hormones, and other “skin foods”—can’t penetrate and “nourish” the deeper layers of the skin, slow the aging process, or reduce wrinkling. Still, moisturizers can help relieve the symptoms of dry skin.

Which moisturizer will work best for you? This depends on the moisturizer’s ingredients and how chapped, dry, or sensitive your skin is. The simpler the moisturizer, the better. The more ingredients in a moisturizer—perfumes, colors, thickeners, emulsifiers—the greater the chance of a sensitivity reaction, especially if you have delicate skin.

If you are prone to acne, overuse of any moisturizer may cause your skin to break out. The best advice: buy by price, and try different products until you find one you like. When you do, you’ll find that it works on your face, hands, and body. You don’t need different products for various body parts.

When to call your doctor about dry skin

Contact your doctor if you develop a severe rash or patches of dry skin accompanied by itching, or if you are bothered by persistent itching.

What your doctor will do

After a careful examination to rule out other disorders, your doctor may prescribe a powerful corticosteroid cream to diminish the itching and lubricate the skin.

Also see Dandruff: Causes and Treatments.