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Dry Skin

What is dry skin?

Dry skin is a very common skin condition. It can make your skin feel irritated and itchy. Dry skin often worsens in the winter when the air is cold and dry. Bathing often also makes it worse. With no treatment, dry skin may become flaky or scaly.

What causes dry skin?

Dry skin happens when skin loses too much moisture. Skin thins with age. So, older adults often have dry skin. Other causes of dry skin include:

  • Living in dry, desert climates
  • Swimming
  • Jobs that need frequent hand-washing
  • Bathing often
  • Skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis
  • Cold air
  • Hot water

What are the symptoms of dry skin?

Dry skin can affect people differently. Dry skin may present like:

  • Rough skin that is scaly or flaky
  • Mild to moderate itching
  • Cracking skin that may bleed
  • Chapped or cracked lips

How is dry skin diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can usually diagnose dry skin by examining your skin. He or she may also ask about your medical history and your daily habits. If your healthcare provider thinks your dry skin may be due to an underlying health problem, he or she may do other tests.

How is dry skin treated?

Bathing less often can help improve dry skin. And when you do bathe or shower, don’t use hot water. Using ointments, lotions, or creams that keep the moisture in also helps.

Apply moisturizers right away after bathing or showering. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a product that contains petrolatum or lanolin. 

 Also:

  • Avoid harsh soaps, detergents, and perfumes, which tend to dry the skin
  • Use soaps and laundry detergents that do not contain dyes or perfumes and that are labelled as "hypoallergenic"
  • Avoid rubbing or scratching the skin. This can aggravate the symptoms and cause infection
  • Apply a salicylic acid solution or creams for scaly skin (this removes the top layer of skin)
  • Use a moisturizer that gives moisture to the skin and prevents the loss of moisture into the air. Ointments that are greasy are the best, but creams may be better tolerated.
  • Cortisone containing creams may help dry, itchy skin

Consider using a humidifier in your home.  If dry skin isn’t helped with these treatments, your healthcare provider may prescribe a prescription medicine to apply to your skin. 

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if:

  • You have itching without a visible rash
  • The itching and dryness are so bad you can't sleep
  • You have scratched so hard that you have open cuts or sores 
  • Home remedies have not relieved the dryness and itching
  • You have red and swollen skin that may be infected

Key points about dry skin

  • Dry skin is a very common skin condition. It can make your skin feel irritated and itchy.
  • Keep moisture in skin by taking fewer baths and applying ointments or creams.
  • If dry skin does not improve with home remedies, or appears to be infected, talk with your healthcare provider.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Berman, Kevin, MD, PhD
Online Medical Reviewer: Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Date Last Reviewed: 3/18/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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