Dry skin can be uncomfortable, and lead to other health complications. Learn more about dry skin and its treatment.
What is dry skin?
Dry skin is one of the most common skin problems, and can cause discomfort and embarrassment. Dry skin may look red and flaky and feel tight or painful. It can also cause intense itching, which can disrupt sleep. Often, dry skin is a symptom of some underlying medical issue that needs attention. While healthy skin is the first level of defense against infection, dried and cracked skin may allow bacteria and other disease-causing organisms into the body. Healthy skin is important for both good health and good looks.
According to Barney Kenet M.D., a dermatologist from New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center, there are approximately 100 million people suffering from dry skin conditions. Dry skin or xerosis is usually caused by environmental factors or anything that depletes the skin of fatty oils and leaves it unprotected. In some cases, the condition is caused by an internal health condition or is genetic.
Patches of dry skin can appear anywhere on the body, but they are most commonly seen on the arms, hands, lower legs, and abdomen. These dry skin regions may appear gray or ashy, and can be very obvious and embarrassing. If left untreated, dry skin may lead to dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin. If the cause of the problem is external, simple and easy skin care may be all that is necessary to resolve it.
What causes dry skin?
Some common causes of dry skin include:
- Moisturizer misuse – Improper use of moisturizer can contribute to dry skin. Moisturizer should only be applied when the skin is still damp, as this helps trap moisture in the skin. The choice of moisturizer is very important. Dry skin requires mild moisturizers without perfumes and alcohols. The moisturizer may need to be thick and greasy to effectively treat dry skin. A simple test is to put a few drops of the moisturizer on the palm, and then flip the hand upside-down. If the moisturizer runs or drips, it may not be thick enough.
- Dry air – One of the most common causes of dry skin, especially in winter, is dry air. It removes moisture from the skin and causes intense itching. The dry heat of an indoor furnace can also have a similar effect on the skin. Using a good moisturizer is the first line of treatment for the winter itch. Some other methods to prevent dry skin during winter include the use of a humidifier in the bedroom and protecting the skin with hats, scarves, and gloves when outdoors. Legs should also be protected by using high socks.
- Bathing with hot water – Long exposures to hot water can take away the natural oils that protect the skin. Showers are preferable to baths when dealing with dry skin. Try to limit exposure to a few minutes in lukewarm water, rather than hot water. When finished, pat-dry the skin with a towel and apply moisturizer immediately.
- Soaps – We tend to overuse soaps, which strip the skin of its protective oil layer. Since childhood, all of us have adopted the habit of washing our hands several times each day; this may lead to drying and cracking of the skin, which in turn may increase the chances of infection. Normally, a person requires just rinsing with water to keep the hands clean. The only parts of the body that require moderate soap use are the hands, groin, feet, and underarms. When choosing soaps, one needs to be careful. Avoid harsh soaps such as deodorant or antibacterial soaps, which make us feel clean but in reality cause damage by removing protective oils from the skin. The best option for cleansing is a mild fragrance-free soap or a mild cleanser. Avoid using sponges and brushes, as they will surely strip the skin of its oil, leaving it dry and cracking.
- Itchy clothing – Wearing clothes that are itchy and uncomfortable can worsen the situation. Dry skin is very sensitive to contact irritants, and wearing improper fabrics may make the skin itchy and uncomfortable. If possible, opt for cashmere instead of wool. The best option for clothing is always cotton. Avoid very tight clothes, as chafing can exacerbate the irritation of dry skin.
- Certain medications – Some medications dry the skin as a side effect. These medications include hypertension drugs like diuretics and retinoids. If dry skin begins with the use of particular medication, talk to your doctor to change the drug or its dosage.
- Medical conditions – Dry skin can also be caused by internal conditions like an illness or a physiological change. Under normal conditions, aging and changes in hormone levels will lead to drier skin. Some individuals are genetically prone to developing dry skin. Others may experience dry skin as a symptom of eczema, psoriasis, diabetes, hypothyroidism, or malnutrition. The best way to treat dry skin in these cases is to control the underlying medical condition.