Ordinarily, dry skin isn’t serious, but it can be uncomfortable and unsightly, turning plump cells into shriveled ones and creating fine lines and wrinkles.
Serious dry skin conditions — an inherited group of disorders called ichthyosis — can sometimes be disfiguring, causing psychological distress. Fortunately, most dry skin results from environmental factors that can be wholly or partially controlled. These include exposure to hot or cold weather with low humidity levels and excessive bathing.
Chronic or severe dry skin problems may require a dermatologist’s evaluation. But first you can do a lot on your own to improve your skin, including using moisturizers, bathing less and avoiding harsh, drying soaps
Dry skin is often just a temporary problem — one you experience only in winter, for example — but it may be a lifelong concern. And although skin is often driest on your arms and lower legs, this pattern can vary considerably from person to person. What’s more, signs and symptoms of dry skin depend on your age, your health status, your locale, the amount of time you spend outdoors and the cause of the problem.
If you have dry skin, you’re likely to experience one or more of the following:
- A feeling of skin tightness, especially after showering, bathing or swimming
- Skin that appears shrunken or dehydrated
- Skin that feels and looks rough rather than smooth
- Itching (pruritus) that sometimes may be intense
- Slight to severe flaking, scaling or peeling
- Fine lines or cracks
- Deep fissures that may bleed
When to call your dermatologist
- Dry skin is accompanied by redness
- Dryness and itching interfere with sleeping
- You have open sores or infections from scratching
- You have large areas of scaling or peeling skin
Though most cases of dry skin (xerosis) are caused by environmental exposures, certain diseases also can significantly alter the function and appearance of your skin. Potential causes of dry skin include:
- Weather. In general, your skin is driest in winter, when temperatures and humidity levels plummet. Winter conditions also tend to make many existing skin conditions worse. But the reverse may be true if you live in desert regions, where temperatures can soar, but humidity levels remain low.
- Central heating and air conditioning. Central air and heating, wood-burning stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces all reduce humidity and dry your skin.
- Hot baths and showers. Frequent showering or bathing, especially if you like the water hot and your baths long, breaks down the lipid barriers in your skin. So does frequent swimming, particularly in heavily chlorinated pools.
- Harsh soaps and detergents. Many popular soaps and detergents strip lipids and water from your skin. Deodorant and antibacterial soaps are usually the most damaging, as are many shampoos that dry out your scalp.
- Sun exposure. Like all types of heat, the sun dries your skin. Yet damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation penetrates far beyond the top layer of skin (epidermis). The most significant damage occurs deep in the dermis, where collagen and elastin fibers break down much more quickly than they should, leading to deep wrinkles and loose, sagging skin (solar elastosis). Sun-damaged skin may have the appearance of dry skin.
- Atopic dermatitis. This is one of the more common types of eczema, and those affected have more sensitive and drier skin. Many persons with mild eczema confuse this skin condition with excessive dryness. Areas commonly affected include the face, sides of the neck, and fold areas around the elbows, wrists, knees and ankles.
- Psoriasis. This skin condition is marked by a rapid buildup of rough, dry, dead skin cells that form thick scales.
- Thyroid disorders. Hypothyroidism, a condition that occurs when your thyroid produces too little thyroid hormones, reduces the activity of your sweat and oil glands, leading to rough, dry skin.