Dry skin lacks the sufficient moisture to make it feel soft. The medical term for this is xeroderma. Xerosis is severely dry skin. Dry skin can feel like rough patches on the skin that can flake or look scaly. If our skin is dry, we may or may not experience itching (pruritis). Severe dry skin can crack and bleed.

What Are the Types of Dry Skin?

Types of dry skin include:

  • Contact dermatitis: Contact dermatitis occurs when something comes into contact with your skin that causes an irritant or allergic reaction. Your skin may be dry, itchy, and red, and you may also have a skin rash. Some examples include jewelry metals (nickel), cosmetics, detergents, and medications.
  • Eczema: Eczema is a group of skin conditions that cause red, dry, bumpy and itchy patches of skin. Severe forms can cause cracking of your skin, which makes you more prone to infection. This common skin condition can worsen with irritants, allergens and stress.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis: Dry skin on your scalp can be the result of a condition known as dandruff in adults or cradle cap in infants. Seborrheic dermatitis can also cause dry, flaky skin patches on your face, chest, and inside creases of your arms, legs, or groin. Less commonly, it can also affect your navel (belly button). This type of dermatitis occurs when your body reacts to a normal yeast that grows on your skin.
  • Athlete’s foot: Athlete’s foot can mimic dry skin on your feet, but a fungus causes it. When this fungus grows on your body, it’s called “ringworm.” People who have an athlete’s foot may have dry, flaky skin on the soles of their feet.

What Are the Symptoms?

The symptoms of severely dry skin are much like regular dry skin, except for how severe the dryness and irritation is, and how often it occurs.

If your skin is itchy, dry, or peeling, you may have severe dry skin.

The first step to finding relief is knowing how to identify this.

Dr. Susan Massick, a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says with severely dry skin, you may notice:

  • the dryness that’s painful, itchy, or scaly
  • redness that’s worsening or starting to scab, crust, peel, or scale off
  • patches of gray, ashy-looking skin in people with darker skin tones
  • skin that has fine cracks
  • difficulty sleeping at night due to severe itching
  • areas of infection with pus, blisters, odor, or pain
  • symptoms not improving, or getting worse, despite the use of over-the-counter moisturizers

How Do I Manage Symptoms of Dry Skin?

Keeping your skin moisturized is the best way to manage symptoms of dry skin. The best time of day to apply moisturizer to your skin is:

When you wake up in the morning.

Before you go to bed at night.

When your skin is damp after a shower or bath.

Who Is Affected by Dry Skin?

Dry skin is common and affects nearly everyone at some point in their life. You might be more at risk of getting dry skin if you:

  • Live in a dry or cold climate.
  • Work outside often.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Have another health condition like allergies.
  • Are 65 years or older.

How Does Dry Skin Affect My Body?

Dry skin changes the soft texture of your skin to rough. Your skin may feel itchy, and its color may differ from your usual skin tone. You could have dry skin patches, which are small areas of dry skin, or dry skin could affect a larger area of your skin. Dry skin is usually harmless and only causes temporary discomfort until you are able to rehydrate your skin with a moisturizer.

Which Lotion or Moisturizer Is Best for Dry Skin?

There are several different moisturizer options available if you have dry skin. When choosing a moisturizer for your dry skin, look for products that:

  • Don’t have fragrances.
  • Don’t contain ingredients that lead to skin dehydration like isopropyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol, or sulfates.
  • Include ingredients that lock in moisture like petroleum jelly, hyaluronic acid, lanolin, or mineral oils (emollients).
  • Include ingredients that attract moisture to your skin like glycerin.
  • Prevent itching (hydrocortisone steroid).
  • Offer protection from the sun (sunscreen) with an SPF.
  • Are designed for your affected area of skin (face vs. body). You may need more than one moisturizer for different parts of your body.

Choosing a moisturizer is tricky because everyone’s skin is different. What works for one person might not work for another. The best way to decide what kind of moisturizer to use is to ask your healthcare provider or dermatologist. They will know what kind of products will work best for your dry skin.

If your skin is severely dry and flaking, be very careful as it can easily crack and become a painful sore. To avoid infection, take care of your skin as you would any other injury.

What Causes Dry Skin?

A lack of moisture within the layers of your skin causes dry skin. Factors that cause dry skin include:

  • Age: As you age, your skin’s moisture-producing oil glands dry up. This causes the fat and collagen (elasticity) in your skin to also dry up, which leads to thinning skin. This is a natural part of your body’s aging process.
  • Climate: The temperature of your environment can affect your skin’s hydration. Climates that lack humidity like desert-like climates or cold climates where there’s heavy wind cause dry skin. Dry skin is often worse during the winter, but dry skin can occur year-round.
  • Health conditions and genetics: You could be more at risk of getting dry skin if you’re born with genes that make you more prone to it or you have a health condition that causes dry skin as a symptom. Some conditions that lead to dry skin include allergies, eczema, diabetes, and kidney disease.
  • Occupations: Certain professions can lead to dry skin, especially if you work outdoors, with chemicals, or wash your hands frequently. Some professions that make you more likely to develop dry skin include healthcare providers, hairstylists, and farmers.

Home Remedies for Severe Dry Skin

If you have severely dry skin that is not affecting your daily life and there are no signs of infection, you may want to try self-care treatments.

If you have a prescription from your doctor, continue taking it. These home remedies are not meant to replace your doctor’s entire treatment plan.

Use the Right Soap

Any soap that contains harsh chemicals or strong fragrances can cause skin problems.

To keep the base layer of your skin moisturized, the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology recommends using gentle soaps and avoiding harsh soaps.

If you are looking to get the most out of your skin care routine, you should consider using a skin cleanser rather than soap.

Take Time to Moisturize

Does your skin feel dry and irritated after washing? It might be due to your shower routine. Washing with the right soap is only part of the equation. You also need to seal in moisture right after drying off from a bath or shower.

When choosing a moisturizer, it is best to look for ones that are free of fragrances, perfumes, and dyes. Ointment and cream are better than lotion because they contain more oil.

The most effective natural moisturizer according to Massick is petroleum jelly. She explains that it is extremely moisturizing with a thick emollient consistency.

Turn Down the Heat

This is the easiest modification you can make at home.

If you want to avoid irritation and skin dryness, make sure to bathe in lukewarm water rather than hot water. Furthermore, try to limit yourself to bathing or showering for no more than 10 minutes.

If you’resomeone who likes to keep the thermostat set to a warm temperature, you might want to consider turning it down a bit. Hot air can actually cause your skin to lose moisture.

A humidifier is a device that adds moisture to the air and can help improve indoor air quality.

Pat Skin Gently, Don’t Rub

Instead, gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel. Exfoliating your skin — removing the upper layer of dead skin cells — also can be beneficial. Use a soft touch when you are cleaning your skin and don’t scrub it too hard. This will help avoid irritating your skin. Exfoliating regularly can also be beneficial.

Gently patting or dabbing your skin dry with a towel instead of rubbing will leave a trace of moisture on your skin.

Try a Cold Compress

If you’re experiencing discomfort due to itching and inflammation, a cold compress may help.

To make your cold compress:

  • Put several ice cubes in a plastic bag, or use a small bag of frozen veggies.
  • Run a cloth under cold water, then wrap the damp cloth around the bag of ice cubes or frozen vegetables.
  • Place the cold compress on your skin for 15 minutes at a time.
  • Gently pat your skin dry once you’re done.

Use an OTC Hydrocortisone Cream

If you are experiencing dry skin that is itchy or irritated, you may want to consider using a hydrocortisone cream or ointment that is available over-the-counter. After applying a cold compress to the affected area, you can then apply the cream or ointment.

There are different strengths of hydrocortisone cream. The milder strengths do not require a prescription and can be found at a local drugstore or online. The stronger strengths require a prescription from a doctor.

When using this cream, be sure to follow the product directions. You can use it along with a moisturizer by first applying the hydrocortisone cream and then adding the moisturizer on top.

Watch What Touches Your Skin

It’s a good idea to use laundry detergents that are formulated for sensitive skin, as they’re usually gentler on your skin and won’t cause as much irritation.

When picking out clothes, go for smooth fabrics like cotton and silk instead of itchy ones like wool. That way, your skin can breathe both during the day and at night.

Consider Natural Products

Many consumers are interested in natural and organic products and are embracing natural skin care options.

If you have any of these products in their natural form, they may be an option for your severely dry skin. Tour your kitchen and bathroom to see what you have.

  • Honey: With its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, honey can be used as a natural wound healer and moisturizer.
  • Coconut oil: With antimicrobial and moisturizing properties, coconut oil can help keep your skin hydrated and may also reduce inflammation.
  • Aloe vera: Most often used in gel form for soothing sunburned skin, aloe vera contains polysaccharides that may stimulate skin growth and help with healing dry, irritated skin.
  • Oatmeal: Soaking in a colloidal oatmeal bath may help soothe dry, irritated skin.

How Can I Prevent Dry Skin?

You can prevent dry skin at home by:

  • Cleansing with a mild, fragrance-free, moisturizing non-soap cleanser.
  • Take warm (not hot) baths or showers.
  • Managing stress, which can aggravate eczema and other skin conditions that cause dry skin.
  • Minimizing sun exposure, which evaporates oils and moisture from your skin.
  • Moisturizing as soon as you finish bathing, while your skin is damp.
  • Patting your skin dry with a soft towel.
  • Preventing dehydration.
  • Stop smoking, as nicotine dries out your skin.
  • Use a humidifier to add moisture to your home’s air.

When Should I See My Healthcare Provider?

You should call your healthcare provider if your skin:

  • Itches constantly and interferes with sleep or daily activities.
  • Looks infected (red, warm, or swollen).
  • Is painful to the touch.
  • Develops a rash.

The Bottom Line

Severe dry skin is a common condition that typically responds well to treatment. It is more prevalent in winter when the air is colder and drier and people are indoors more often with the heat on.

To avoid dry skin, drink plenty of water, use moisturizer, and avoid hot air and hot showers.

If your skin gets severely dry, home treatments might help. But if your skin doesn’t get better, or if the symptoms get worse, see a healthcare professional.


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