Dry skin occurs when skin cannot retain sufficient moisture. It is not a serious health problem and is not painful.
Dry skin involves one or more of these symptoms:
- Red, itchy skin
- A feeling of tightness (e.g., after having been in water)
- Skin that flakes or scales
- Cracks or fissures that can deepen and bleed
Left untreated, dry skin can lead to complications such as eczema or a skin infection (due to the cracks in the skin that allow bacteria to enter).
Causes and triggers
Dry skin is often associated with an environmental cause. Individuals who live in northern climates, where the air is cold and dry during the winter months, are more likely to experience episodes of dry skin.
Other factors that can cause dry skin include:
- Indoor heating, which lowers indoor humidity levels
- Taking showers or baths that are too hot
- Washing too often or using harsh soaps
- Age - as we age, the skin produces less of the natural oil needed to keep the skin hydrated
- Skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis
- Frequent swimming in heavily chlorinated pools
- Having a job that requires constantly immersing the skin in water (e.g., nursing, hairdressing)
The following preventive measures can help keep the skin hydrated:
- Limit showers and baths to no more than 10 minutes, and use lukewarm water rather than hot water
- Instead of soap, opt for moisturizing washes (e.g., Dove, CeraVe and Aveeno) and avoid perfumed products
- Dry off by patting or blotting the skin with a towel
- Apply moisturizer immediately after showering or bathing and after washing hands
- Apply moisturizer (e.g., Cutibase and CeraVe) several times a day
- Use fragrance-free laundry detergent and avoid fabric softeners
- Use a humidifier in the house during the winter months and set to about 60% humidity
- Use sunscreen to protect skin, even in winter
- Apply moisturizing lip balm to protect the lips
- In winter, cover the skin and wear a scarf, gloves and hat when going outside
- Wear rubber gloves when doing the dishes
- Avoid scratching itchy skin
When should I see a healthcare professional?
Usually, dry skin can be addressed with over-the-counter treatments and by changing certain lifestyle habits.
However, if you experience any of the following symptoms, see your healthcare professional:
- The measures above do not appear to have any effect
- You itch all over your body but there is no obvious cause or rash
- Itching is so bad that you cannot sleep
- Your skin is badly broken from scratching and there are signs of infection (e.g., discharge of pus, warmth, swelling)
Canadian Dermatology Association