Dry Skin Overview

Close up of woman's cracked dry heels.
The outermost layer of your skin helps retain water and keep skin moisturized.
©iStockphoto.com/Arturo Enriquez

Maybe you've had a day when you step out of the shower and feel like your skin has shrunk. Or maybe you've had a night when you can hardly sleep because your skin is so itchy and painful. Dry skin is the culprit in both of these scenarios -- it's a common problem, and understanding why it happens could save you a lot of irritation.

Our skin is our largest organ and our first line of defense against bacteria, pollution and other irritants, so it's important to keep it healthy. Skin is supposed to be soft and supple, but it's easy for skin to dry out and become rough, cracked and itchy. Dry skin is caused by a variety of factors: how you shower, the soap you use, how you heat and cool your home, the clothes you wear and the climate you live in [source: Griffin]. There are so many causes of dry skin that it may seem impossible to avoid, but it can be done.


Dry skin can typically be prevented, but it's also easy to treat if your skin is already dry and cracked. You may be able to solve the problem by simply using a moisturizer, but if you're using one and not getting the desired results, you may need to try a different moisturizer [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. There are also certain medical conditions that cause dry skin, and while these are more difficult to treat, they're also quite rare -- most cases of dry skin are caused by controllable factors.

If you're tired of your dry skin, keep reading to discover how it may be getting robbed of its moisture.


Dry Skin Causes

The outermost layer of your skin, the stratum corneum, is composed of dead skin cells and oils that help keep your skin moisturized. This layer of skin helps retain water, which keeps the living skin beneath it healthy and moisturized. If the stratum corneum breaks down and is unable to retain this water, the result is dry skin [source: University of Iowa].

You may enjoy long, hot showers and the smell of your soap as you lather up, but this habit could be drying out your skin. Hot water and certain soaps, including scented, deodorant and antibacterial soaps, can remove natural oils from your skin and allow moisture to escape [source: Fries]. Low humidity levels, which are often caused by cold, dry weather or arid climates, or your home environment -- with the furnace or air conditioner circulating dry air -- could also be the culprits [source: Mayo Clinic].


You may think using a moisturizer will solve your dry skin problems, but if you use the wrong lotion or apply it incorrectly, you could be doing more harm than good. Avoid scented lotions -- opt for moisturizers that are gentle and contain humectants and emollients. Humectants attract water from the air and retain it in your skin, and emollients act as lubricants and smooth the skin [source: Kraft].

Sometimes medications can also cause dry skin -- if you're taking allergy, acne or blood pressure medications, they could be the source of your itchy, flaky skin. Medical conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, can also sap your skin of moisture, and they tend to cause dry patches on the body [source: Griffin]. Keep reading to learn more about these dry patches.


Dry Skin Patches

Dry skin is often nothing more than a temporary inconvenience -- it's irritating and itchy, but if you treat it properly, it goes away. But if your dry skin doesn't go away, you may be dealing with something a little more serious -- especially if you start to develop patches of dry skin. These rough, raised patches of flaky skin can itch to the point they feel like they're burning, and they're usually a symptom of a more serious skin condition like eczema or psoriasis [source: Stöppler].

The exact cause of eczema is unknown, but it's thought to be caused by an overactive response by the body's immune system to unidentified triggers. There are several types of eczema, but the most common is atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis affects 9 to 30 percent of the U.S. population, and it can be inherited [source: WebMD]. The most obvious symptoms are extreme itching and dry, reddened skin. It can be difficult to resist scratching the skin, but doing so will often cause the skin to become thick and crusty. If you think you may have eczema, consult a doctor to discuss treatment options [source: Stöppler].


Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder -- the immune system malfunctions and causes the body to produce excess skin cells. It's a chronic condition in which the skin cells build up rapidly on the skin, forming silvery scales and itchy red patches. Like eczema, no one knows exactly what causes this to happen, but stress and certain medications can trigger episodes [source: WebMD]. Millions of Americans are affected by psoriasis, and while there's no cure, there are treatments that can help you control it [source: National Psoriasis Foundation]. If you develop dry skin patches that won't go away by moisturizing, consult your doctor.

Keep reading to learn why dry skin itches so badly.


Dry Skin and Itching

Dry skin itches -- there are no ifs, ands or buts about it -- and until you treat your dry skin, you'll have to deal with the annoying itchiness that comes with it.

Dry skin is easily irritated, and itching occurs when irritation stimulates pain receptors in your skin. Basically, your skin itches when it's dry because your body is trying to tell you that your skin is damaged and in need of repair. But keep in mind that itchy skin can be caused by a variety of things -- just because you itch doesn't mean your skin is dry [source: Mayo Clinic].


When your skin itches, it can be challenging not to scratch it, but it's best to avoid doing so. Scratching can further irritate dry skin, and it won't solve the itch -- you'll likely just develop sore, red skin in addition to the itchiness. The best thing to do is to treat your symptoms to try to alleviate your dry skin [source: Fries].

Keep reading to find out what you can do to cure and prevent dry skin.


Dry Skin Cures

Curing dry skin can be as simple as following a few easy steps -- it often comes down to daily moisturizing. If you keep your skin moisturized, it won't dry out, but you have to do it correctly.

The first step to keeping your skin hydrated is to avoid long, hot showers that can strip your skin of necessary oils. Instead, take shorter showers and use lukewarm water. Also, avoid scented, deodorant or antibacterial soaps that can dry out your skin -- use mild, unscented or soap-free cleansers [source: Fries]. Once you've showered, softly pat yourself dry, leaving your skin damp, and apply a moisturizer within three minutes to help lock in moisture [source: American Academy of Dermatology]


If daily moisturizing doesn't heal your dry skin, there are additional ways you can help keep your skin soft and smooth. If you live in a dry climate, or if your dry skin is worse in the winter, using a humidifier to add moisture to the air may be the solution [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. If this doesn't help you, talk to a dermatologist. Doctors can diagnose more serious conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, and they can prescribe intensive moisturizing creams to help cure chronic dry skin.

For more information on dry skin and how to prevent it, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dermatologists' Top 10 Tips for Relieving Dry Skin." Skin Care Physicians. 2008. (Accessed 10/05/2009)http://www.skincarephysicians.com/agingskinnet/winter_skin.html
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dry Skin & Keratosis Pilaris." 2009. (Accessed 10/05/2009)http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/skin_dry.html
  • American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. "Dry Skin (xerosis)." 2009. (Accessed 10/05/2009) http://www.aocd.org/skin/dermatologic_diseases/dry_skin.html
  • Arizona State University. "Building Blocks of Life." (Accessed 10/05/2009)http://askabiologist.asu.edu/research/buildingblocks/cellsdivide.html
  • Atkins, Lucy. "Eaten alive." The Guardian. April 10, 2007. (Accessed 10/05/2009)http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/apr/10/healthandwellbeing.health2
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  • Fries, Wendy, C. "Dry Skin: Soothing the Winter Itch." ((Accessed 10/09) http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/dry-skin-soothing-the-itch-in-winter
  • Griffin, R. Morgan. "What's Causing Your Dry Skin Problems?" WebMD. March 6, 2009. (Accessed 10/05/2009). http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/whats-causing-your-dry-skin-problem
  • Kraft, J.N. "Moisturizers: What They Are -- Practical Approach to Selection." (Accessed 10/20/09) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/505759_6
  • Mayo Clinic. "Dry Skin: Causes." November 26, 2008. (Accessed 10/05/2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dry-skin/DS00560/DSECTION=causes
  • Mayo Clinic. "Itchy skin (pruritus)." December 20, 2008. (Accessed 10/05/2009)
  • http://www.mayoclinic.com/print/itchy-skin/DS00847/METHOD=print&DSECTION=all
  • Merriam-Webster Online. "Itch." 2009. (Accessed 10/05/2009) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/itch
  • National Psoriasis Foundation. "Treating psoriasis." (Accessed 10/05/2009) http://www.psoriasis.org/netcommunity/learn03
  • Scott, Brendan. "Pol Pushes to Ban Fish Pedicures." (Accessed 10/20/09) http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/pol_pushes_to_ban_fish_pedicures_ytCRlw3IUroF23IQ6AsmKP
  • Stöppler, Melissa Conrad. "Eczema." Medicine Net. February 11, 2008. (Accessed 10/05/2009)http://www.medicinenet.com/eczema/article.htm
  • University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. "Winter Dry Skin." 2005. (Accessed 10/05/2009)http://www.uihealthcare.com/topics/skinhealth/winterskin.html
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