Dry, ashy skin: People who had atopic dermatitis as children often have very dry skin as adults.
Dry skin is common. It can occur at any age and for many reasons. Using a moisturizer often helps repair dry skin.
Sometimes people need a dermatologist's help to get relief from dry skin.
Extremely dry skin can be a warning sign of a skin problem called dermatitis
Dermatitis means inflammation of the skin. It can cause an itchy rash or patches of dry irritated skin. The earlier dermatitis is diagnosed and treated the better. Without treatment, dermatitis often gets worse.
Your doctor may call dry skin xerosis (ze-ROW-sis).
Dry skin: Signs and symptoms
The signs (what you see) and symptoms (what you feel) of dry skin are:
- Rough, scaly, or flaking skin.
- Gray, ashy skin in people with dark skin.
- Cracks in the skin, which may bleed if severe.
- Chapped or cracked lips.
When dry skin cracks, germs can get in through the skin. Once inside, germs can cause an infection. Red, sore spots on the skin may be an early sign of an infection.
Dry skin: Who gets and causes
Who gets dry skin and why?
Anyone can get dry skin. Skin becomes dry when it loses too much water or oil. Some people are more likely to have dry skin. Some causes of dry skin are:
- Age: As we age, our skin becomes thinner and drier. By our 40s, many people need to use a good moisturizer every day.
- Climate: Living in a dry climate such as a desert.
- Skin disease: People who had atopic dermatitis (also called eczema) as a child tend to have dry skin as adults. Psoriasis also causes very dry skin.
- Job: Nurses, hair stylists, and people in other occupations often immerse their skin in water throughout the day. This can cause the skin to become dry, raw, and cracked.
- Swimming: Some pools have high levels of chlorine, which can dry the skin.
Dry skin: Diagnosis, treatment, and outcome
How do dermatologists diagnose dry skin?
To find out whether your dry skin is a sign of a skin disease, a dermatologist will carefully examine your skin. The doctor also will ask questions, such as when the problem began. This information will help the dermatologist make the right diagnosis and determine the best treatment. Tests may be needed if a dermatologist thinks your dry skin is due to a health problem.
How do dermatologists treat dry skin?
Your dermatologist may recommend the following:
- Moisturizer: Applying a moisturizer frequently throughout the day can help. It can make the skin softer, smoother, and less likely to crack. Body moisturizers come in a few forms — ointments, creams, lotions, and oils. Your dermatologist can tell you which is recommended for you.
If your skin is dry, look for a product that contains petrolatum or lanolin, which can seal moisture into your skin.
For very dry skin, a moisturizer that contains urea or lactic acid may be helpful. These ingredients help the skin hold water. You can find these ingredients in both prescription moisturizers and those that you can buy without a prescription. A drawback is that these ingredients can sting if you have eczema or cracked skin.
Medicine: When skin is extremely dry, your dermatologist may prescribe a medicine that you can apply to your skin. This may be a corticosteroid (cortisone-like) or an immune modulator (tacrolimus, pimecrolimus). These medicines tend to be quite good at relieving the itch, redness, and swelling. You also may need to use a moisturizer several times a day.
Changes to your day: If your dry skin is caused by something that you are doing, such as immersing your hands in water all day, you may need to stop doing this for a few days. When you start up again, you may need to wear gloves or apply a special moisturizer throughout the day.
Dry skin: Tips for relieving
Here are tips that can prevent dry skin or keep it from getting worse.
- Do not use hot water. Hot water removes your natural skin oils more quickly. Warm water is best for bathing.
- Use a gentle cleanser. Soaps can strip oils from the skin. Stop using deodorant bars, antibacterial soaps, perfumed soaps, and skin care products containing alcohol, like hand sanitizers. Look for either a mild, fragrance-free soap or a soap substitute that moisturizes.
- Limit time in the bathtub or shower. A 5- to 10-minute bath or shower adds moisture to the skin. Spending more time in the water often leaves your skin less hydrated than before you started. Do not bathe more often than once a day.
- Moisturize right after baths and showers. To lock in moisture from a bath or shower, apply a moisturizer while the skin is still damp.
- Before you shave, soften skin. It is best to shave right after bathing, when hairs are soft. To lessen the irritating effects of shaving your face or legs, use a shaving cream or gel. Leave the product on your skin about 3 minutes before starting to shave. Shave in the direction that the hair grows.
- Change razor blades after 5 to 7 shaves. A dull blade bothers dry skin.
- Use a humidifier. Keep the air in your home moist with a humidifier.
- Apply cool cloths to itchy dry skin.
- Soothe chapped lips. At bedtime, apply a lip balm that contains petrolatum. Other names for this ingredient are petroleum jelly and mineral oil.
- Cover up outdoors in winter. In the cold, wear a scarf and gloves to help prevent chapped lips and hands.
- Be good to your face. If you have very dry skin, cleanse your face just once a day, at night. In the morning, rinse your face with cool water.