Skin Dryness and Itching

Dry skin on hands.
Dry skin can be itchy and uncomfortable.
Š Steward

You feel that first itchy prickle and start scratching. Before you know it, you're frantically raking at the persistent irritation beneath your skin, trying to get some relief. It's a problem that a lot of people face, but the good news is that there are several simple remedies for dry, itchy skin.

The reason you can't stop itching is that dry skin is cranky skin. That itch tells you that your skin is irritated, and you need to do something about it [source: Cleveland Clinic]. Skin becomes dry when the natural oils that keep it moist and supple have gone missing. Generally, you are most likely to get dry skin on your legs -- specifically your shins and thighs -- and on your arms and the sides of your midriff [source: Medline Plus]. Dry skin can vary in appearance and texture, but it most likely will look parched, rough, flaky, red, peeling, scaly or cracked. It can also feel tight and, of course, itchy [source: Mayo Clinic].


Usually, with a few small steps, you can prevent or treat dry, itchy skin yourself. However, if dryness and itching persist, you should consult a doctor. You should also consider seeing a doctor if the irritation from dry skin becomes severe, if you develop a rash, or if your scratching has led to cuts and sores. These could be signs of a more serious issue, such as seborrheic dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis or atopic dermatitis, instead of just dry skin [source: Cleveland Clinic].

If you've looked over your dry patches and feel certain that you have everyday dry skin, then you can try eradicating that itch on your own. Read on to learn more about what's making you itch and how to handle it.


Itchy Skin from Dryness

Those dry, scaly patches of skin are parched and desperate for some soothing attention. To stop the itch, you have to remedy the dryness, and you can't do that unless you understand why your skin is dry. Dryness can result from both external irritants and internal factors.

The usual external culprits that cause dry skin include:


  • Harsh and abrasive soaps
  • Extended exposure to water, especially hot water or heavily chlorinated water
  • Lack of humidity -- either from the weather or from air conditioning and heating units

[source: Mayo Clinic]

Internal factors, such as genetics, can also contribute to dry skin. Not only can you inherit hair and eye color from your family, but you can also inherit skin sensitivity or a predisposition toward drier skin [source: Cleveland Clinic]. Certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism or diabetes, can also lead to dry skin [source: WebMD]. Plus, you are more likely to develop dry skin as you get older because you lose oil glands that naturally moisturize your skin [source: Cleveland Clinic].

If you develop dry skin, take some time to consider the source. Look at your soaps and laundry detergents. Pay attention to how much time you're spending in the bath, shower or swimming pool. Think about the moisture content of the air around you, both inside and outside. If you think that your dry skin might be the result of external irritants, then you can focus on addressing those causes. If you can rule out external factors, then you might start investigating internal causes.

Once you have an idea of the factors behind your dry skin, you can begin to remedy it. Read on to find out how to treat itchy, dry skin.


Treating Dry and Itchy Skin

Although dry skin might clear up on its own in time, it could take a while, especially if you're using products that worsen the irritation or if you live in a naturally dry climate. If you don't want to wait, there are steps you can take to alleviate the dryness.

First, avoid soaps, laundry detergents, facial cleansers and toners that contain harsh chemicals, alcohol, and other drying or irritating agents. Try switching to milder soaps and detergents. When bathing and showering, spend less time in the water and turn the temperature down. Warm water strips less oil from your skin than hot water does [source: Mayo Clinic]. When you get out of the tub, try not to scrub yourself dry with the towel. Although it might feel good, that nice, brisk rub can be abrasive and make dry skin worse [source: Medline Plus]. Opt for a gentle pat down instead. These measures avoid aggravating dry skin and also help prevent further dryness.


You can also take some steps to soothe your irritated skin and restore moisture. First, and most importantly, you need to moisturize regularly. When you get out of the bath, shower or pool, the water on the surface of your skin evaporates, taking natural oils and moisture with it. To keep the moisture in your skin, you should apply moisturizer within three minutes of climbing out of the water, preferably while your skin is still damp [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

You also need to keep moisture in the air around you. To improve the humidity level in your home, you can add a humidifier. This will counter the drying effect of an air conditioner or heater. If the outdoor climate is especially dry, be sure to apply moisturizer -- especially one with sunscreen -- before heading out for the day. A moisturizer with sunscreen provides double protection against dry air and harmful rays from the sun.

Finally, dry skin might signal that your body is dehydrated, or lacking sufficient fluids [source: Medline Plus]. You can keep your body -- and skin -- hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day.

The most important thing to remember about everyday dry skin is that you should be able to fix it. With proper attention, your dry, itchy skin could soon be a thing of the past.

Learn more about different types of dry skin and how they can be treated on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Skin Care Questions

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dermatologists' Top 10 Tips for Relieving Dry Skin." Aging Skin Net. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. "Eczema: Tips on How to Care for Your Skin." December 2006. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. "Skin Problems: Dry, Itchy Skin." Sept. 15, 2003. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • Cleveland Clinic. "Aging and Skin Care." June 12, 2007. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • Cleveland Clinic. "Dry Skin/Itchy Skin." (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)." Aug. 22, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Dry Skin." Nov. 26, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • Medline Plus. "Dry Skin." (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • National Institute on Aging. "Skin Care and Aging." Aug. 6, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • New Zealand Dermatological Society. "Dry Skin." DermNet NZ. June 15, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Dry Skin and Itching -- Home Treatment." March 5, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Ultra Dry Skin? When to Call the Doctor." Nov. 29, 2007. (Accessed Sept. 5, 2009)