Overview of Dry Skin (Xerosis)

Xerosis is a medical term for dry skin. When it results in skin that is scaly and itchy, the condition is called pruritus. This occurs when natural moisture is drawn out of the skin.

The skin needs moisture to protect itself. The best way to relieve dry skin is to use a moisturizer. Too much water can cause the skin to dry out. Habitually showering or bathing more than once a day should be avoided to prevent dry skin.

Eczema is dry skin that develops into red, itchy, or painful patches that become cracked (fissured). The skin protects the body against infection, and if the outer layer of skin (epidermis) becomes cracked or broken, the chance of infection, including cellulitis (inflammation of the subcutaneous tissue), increases. This condition must be treated immediately by a physician.

Causes of Dry Skin

Xerosis can be caused by many factors, including:

  • washing with excessively hot water,
  • using nonmoisturizing soap,
  • showering or bathing more than once a day, and
  • bathing for long periods of time.

Risk Factors for Dry Skin (Xerosis)

Environmental factors such as excessive sun exposure and pollutants in the air can damage the skin. Dry skin is often a problem in cooler climates, especially during winter months when home heating systems are used regularly. This unhumidified heat is dry and draws moisture from the skin. Outdoors, cold winter air causes the body to protect itself by drawing blood away from the skin. When this occurs, the skin is not well nourished and xerosis can result.

Treatment for Dry Skin (Xerosis)

The goal of therapy is to reverse fissuring and scaling and add moisture to the skin. Because water provides skin with its flexibility, moisturizing the outer layer of the skin is most important. Emollients are creams that can be applied to the affected area to prevent water from evaporating from the skin's surface. Emollients also smooth over the scaly edges that can flake off and cause intense itching. Emollients should be applied after bathing and frequently throughout the day.

Oils can be added to bath water, but they are not as effective as emollient creams. Bathing for long periods or bathing more often than once a day can be detrimental to treatment, even though it may appear to give relief.

Creams and lotions that contain keratolytic agents, such as urea, salicylate, lactic acid, vitamin A, and propylene glycols are also available. These lotions are not as hydrolizing as emollients.

The cause of the xerosis determines the best treatment option. For example, if the cause is an infectious agent, such as a viral or a bacterial infection, a systemic medication may be necessary. Xerosis in the absence of an infectious agent may require frequent and prolonged moisturizing therapy.

Severe xerosis may require treatment with a prescription medicine that is stronger and more effective than over-the-counter remedies. If lotions do not relieve the dry skin, or dryness lasts longer than 2 weeks, a podiatrist should be consulted for a diagnosis and treatment options. There may be another cause for the dryness. Athlete's foot, for example, is a common skin problem that can cause dryness and itching.

Publication Review By: John J. Swierzewski, D.P.M., Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2000

Last Modified: 04 Dec 2014