Dry skin is a very common condition marked by itching, scaling, and cracking of the skin. In general, it occurs in people with naturally dry skin. However, many diseases precipitate this condition.
As you would expect, dry skin can affect any part of your body, with a special predilection to the hands, arms, and legs. Making lifestyle modifications and taking over-the-counter moisturizers may be enough to reverse dry skin.
If you try the treatments and remedies listed in this guideline with no success, make sure to speak with your primary care physician or dermatologist for tailored medical care.
In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about dry skin, including the effective ways to address it.
Different types of dry skin
While dry skin leads to the same signs and symptoms, its causes can be quite diverse. Some are environmental and include extreme weather conditions, hot water, and exposure to chemicals. Other causes include the set of diseases known as eczema or dermatitis.
We will briefly detail some of these conditions in the sections below.
Many people confuse contact dermatitis (CD) with atopic dermatitis , which is quite understandable due to the overlapping clinical features and terminology.
However, the two conditions are completely different, with CD being extremely prevalent since it gets triggered by minimal contact with certain chemicals and substances.
As the name implies, contact dermatitis is the result of an immune hypersensitivity response that overreacts to harmless substances you may come in contact with.
While CD rarely presents with severe symptoms, it can negatively impact the lives of patients, especially if the triggering agent is unknown or frequently contacted (work-related exposure).
This condition often leads to dry skin.
Causes of contact dermatitis
Because contact dermatitis is divided into many subtypes, each of these individual diseases has a unique pathophysiological mechanism that explains it.
For instance, allergic contact dermatitis is often linked to an allergic reaction of your immune system against a foreign substance. In this scenario, the causative agent does not necessarily have to be harmful.
Once the immune system interacts with this substance, the cells will release pro-inflammatory mediators (e.g., histamine, prostaglandins) that cause a variety of signs and symptoms.
Substances that can trigger allergic contact dermatitis include cosmetics, skincare creams, latex gloves, gold jewelry, and poison ivy.
On the other hand, irritant contact dermatitis gets uniquely triggered by harmful chemicals that irritate the skin, such as bleach, detergents, and pepper spray.
The treatment of contact dermatitis
The primary therapeutic approach to address CD is to avoid contact with the triggering agent. This step can save you from experiencing all the annoying symptoms listed above.
However, excluding the CD-triggering agent is easier said than done. You see, patients often find it difficult to pinpoint the exact substance that’s causing their symptoms, especially if they work in a factory or processing facility.
In the case where the patient fails to identify what’s causing his/her symptoms, allergic testing might be warranted.
Moreover, maintaining a high level of hygiene is essential to prevent severe complications after CD (e.g., scarring, infections, ulcerations).
Once you treat CD, you will notice that the symptoms of dry skin are improving.
Seborrheic dermatitis (SD) is a very common skin condition characterized by its chronic and relapsing nature. Most commonly, SD affects infants, but it is also seen in adults.
The primary targets of SD pathogenesis are the sebaceous glands, which are responsible for producing oil to moisturize the skin.
In some cases, SD could be associated with psoriasis, a condition known as sebopsoriasis.
What most people are unaware of is that dandruff is the non-inflamed form of SD, which is why a large number of individuals with simple dandruff have undiagnosed SD.
It is also responsible for dry skin.
Causes of seborrheic dermatitis
Similar to other types of eczema, seborrheic dermatitis is still being researched, and the exact causes are not yet understood.
Researchers believe that the primary pathogenesis involves the proliferation of various fungal species in the skin flora, such as Malassezia furfur.
The substances produced by these microbes (i.e., metabolites) trigger an inflammatory reaction that’s often subtle but chronic.
Note that different skin compositions and the level of lipid barrier will determine the type of signs and symptoms each patient experiences.
Treatment of seborrheic dermatitis
The treatment of SD involves lifestyle modifications and taking pharmacological drugs.
Here are a few treatment options:
- Keratolytic drugs that remove scale (e.g., salicylic acid, urea, lactic acid)
- Topical antifungal drugs (e.g., ketoconazole) neutralize the overgrowth of Malassezia species and restore the balance to the skin flora.
- Topical corticosteroids (1-3 weeks to temper down the inflammation during flareups).
- In the case of refractory SD, your doctor may prescribe oral azoles, tetracycline, and phototherapy to improve your symptoms.
Atopic dermatitis is another form of eczema that’s characterized by dry scaly patches that appear all over the kin.
Risk factors for dry skin
After covering the underlying etiologies that could precipitate dry skin, it is time to discuss some of the risk factors.
Age – older individuals tend to have a higher risk of developing dry skin. As you age, the pores of your skin produce less oil, which increases the risk of dry skin.
Medical history – having any of the diseases we listed above will dramatically increase your risk of dry skin.
Season – most hospital consultations regarding dry skin occur during the fall and winter seasons. In particularly dry areas, the risk of dry skin is also considerable.
Bathing habits – if you take frequent baths or wash with very hot water, dry skin is more likely to occur.
Treatment of dry skin
If you develop dry skin one time, it might resolve without any medical treatment. Drinking plenty of water and using a moisturizer should do the trick.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), patients should use a cream or ointment when dealing with dry skin. Lotions are less effective in this case.
Here are the ingredients to look for in your moisturizer:
- Hyaluronic acid
- Lactic acid
- Jojoba oil
- Mineral oil
- Shea butter
If the cause of your dry skin is one of the underlying diseases that we listed above, your doctor may prescribe specific treatments to control your symptoms. Once the flareup is over, expect your skin to go back to its normal level of hydration.
In some cases, the cause of dry skin might be unrelated to dermatology. For instance, patients with diabetes or anorexia often present with dry skin. To address this issue, your dermatologist might work with your primary care physician or endocrinologist to come up with a comprehensive therapeutic plan.
Finally, dry skin could occur after the intake of certain medications. Therefore, the interruption of the culprit drug should be enough to resolve the symptoms.
Before stopping any drug, make sure to speak with your doctor first, especially if it’s the treatment of a chronic illness.
Home remedies for dry skin
Coconut oil has powerful emollient properties. This means that the spaces between skin cells will get filled, creating a smooth surface. For this reason, saturated fatty acids found in coconut oil work great in hydrating the skin.
Preferably, you would use coconut oil on a daily basis. The nature of this oil makes it suitable for even the most sensitive areas, such as the mouth and under the eyes. What’s more, you can apply coconut oil without having to dilute it in any solution, and it will still be completely safe.
In one study, researchers found that petroleum jelly products heal the skin of older adults. By covering the skin with a protective layer, petroleum jelly helps with trapping the moisture underneath, which is our goal for dry skin.
Oatmeal is a very common remedy for irritated and dry skin. In a 2015 study, scientists proved the effectiveness of this food in controlling the symptoms of dry skin.
Colloidal oatmeal also has potent antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties that soothe the skin. If itching is part of your clinical presentation, oatmeal might be the perfect choice for you.
Antioxidants and omega-3s
Dry skin means it is prone to the damage of free radicals. In other words, the inflicted damage is occurring at a faster rate compared to the repair process. To neutralize the harmful effects of free radicals, you need the help of antioxidants, which are abundant in certain foods.
Consuming antioxidant-rich foods will limit the damage of toxins and help your cells heal quickly.
Here are some of the foods that will help you deal with dry skin:
You could also benefit from omega-3 fatty acids, which you can find in salmon. They will give you glowing skin and prevent dehydration.
Faced with environmental irritants, the hands are usually the first to get exposed. Some of these irritants include dish soaps and laundry detergents.
For this reason, you need to get used to wearing gloves when your hands are in the water. This will also help you when you are working in a cold environment and your hands are without protection.
To prevent dry skin, wear insulated gloves, especially when you are doing household chores or working in extreme temperatures.
Adjust your shower temperature
According to the AAD, dry skin can be a very easy condition to deal with, especially when the underlying cause is reversible.
Enter: shower temperature
Changing the temperature of your shower can be enough to fix the issue. Additionally, be aware of the soaps that are supposed to moisturize your skin as they can trigger the opposite effect. By causing an allergic reaction and making your skin thinner, harsh chemicals can easily damage your skin cells.
Finally, remember to take short showers and use warm water instead of scalding hot. As for soaps, opt for fragrance-free and gentler options.
Use a humidifier
Having a humidifier at home can be very effective at lowering the risk of dry skin. Oftentimes, home heating systems will dry the air around you, which removes the protective layer that shields your skin.
To offset this effect, make sure to set your humidifier at 60%, which is what Harvard Medical School recommends.
Avoid allergens and irritants
If you have never developed dry skin before, a sudden occurrence of this condition may be a sign that your clothes are not working for you.
For instance, wearing wool clothes, sitting by the fireplace, or spending time in chlorinated or chemically-treated water can all be responsible for irritating your skin. In this case, you need to remove the worsening factor rather than overdo it with moisturizers.
Prevention of dry skin
Despite the diversity of treatments and solutions, preventing dry skin might be the best way to address this condition. Your skin is the first line of defense as part of the immune system. Compromising its integrity can predispose you to viral and bacterial skin infections.
For this reason, you might want to use a moisturizer even if your skin is not bothering you.
According to AAD, maintaining a healthy skin barrier is the optimal way to prevent dry skin flareups. You can also use moisturizing sunscreen to prevent skin damage.
Wearing loose-fitting clothes made from cotton can draw sweat away from the skin, which may be very helpful in skin-irritating conditions.
In some cases, you might take the most effective preventive measures but still develop dry skin. This is especially true when the trigger of your dry skin is a more serious dermatological illness.
Dry skin is an extremely prevalent condition that affects millions of patients, especially those with chronic dermatological diseases. Taking care of your skin and applying a moisturizer on a regular basis can be enough to resolve the symptoms. However, if you experience dry skin very frequently or if your symptoms are not improving, speak with your doctor.
We hope that this article helped you understand the impact of skin dehydration on certain dermatological conditions and how to treat it.
If you want to read more about the difference between eczema and psoriasis, click here
Written by Zac Hyde M.D.