Dry Skin: More than Skin Deep

Your skin protects you from disease and discomfort, and often serves as a mirror that reflects your inner health. The topmost layer of your skin, the epidermis, consists of dead skin cells mixed with natural oils, or lipids. Together, they hold in moisture to keep skin soft and smooth and block germs and bacteria from entering the body. If this protective barrier can't do its job, your skin becomes vulnerable to assault—everything from infections to cold weather or a poor diet can make it inflamed, dry, itchy or irritated. Scratching that dry skin may inflame and thicken it, causing cracks that bleed and invite bacteria.

Keeping skin smooth, supple and intact is vital to avoid such potential problems. So if you experience dry, itchy or scaly skin from colder, drier, air, sun exposure, and over-heated or over-air conditioned homes and offices, here’s what you can do to scratch that problem off your list.

Why Dry Skin?

"Dry skin happens when something causes an absence of water and a diminished effect of oil on the skin," says Milton D. Moore, M.D, a dermatologist in private practice in Houston. This one-two punch may result from:

  • Dry air. Whether winter winds or summer air conditioning, lack of humidity prevents skin from retaining moisture.
  • Aging. As people get older, skin cells reproduce less quickly, so skin is renewed less often. There is a loss of functioning sweat and oil glands as well.
  • Skincare products. Some make-up and antibacterial soaps over-cleanse, removing too much oil; others may trigger skin–irritating allergies.
  • Improper bathing. Frequent and long, hot showers and baths, and hot tub soaks, break down the skin’s lipid barriers.
  • Tobacco, alcohol and caffeine. Coffee and alcoholic drinks can dehydrate the body, drying skin. And smoking reduces the oxygen available to the skin, which can slow healing as well as dry out the epidermis, the outer layer of skin.
  • Medications. Diuretics and antihistamines are dehydrating, "as are some drugs used to lower cholesterol," says Gary Goldenberg, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology and pathology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Flake Off!

Restoring skin to a supple, healthy texture may take some time and effort, but the good news is that it usually can be done inexpensively, using at-home remedies and techniques.

  • Bathe wisely. Take short baths and showers with warm (not hot) water. Use soaps without antibacterials or deodorant, and pat (don’t rub) yourself dry. "Soaps with more oil lather less, but are better for your skin," says Dr. Moore.
  • Protect your skin. Ointments or salves are thick and oil-based; they are most effective for trapping moisture. Less greasy, but still effective, are oil-based. "Put moisturizers on immediately after drying off," says Dr. Goldenberg, "to seal the water in."

Beyond Dry Skin

If you've done everything and dry skin still haunts you, you could have a disorder or disease that triggers dry skin, such as thyroid problems or diabetes. Or you could have a skin disorder. In any case, make sure you check with your healthcare provider to determine the cause.

“Many illnesses can present with dry skin,” says Dr. Goldenberg. Some of these include atopic eczema, with its itchy, red, dry patches. It is the most common form of eczema, and it is associated with asthma and hay fever and often runs in families.

There are other forms of eczema including contact dermatitis that comes from touching material, such as shampoo or jewelry, to which your skin is particularly sensitive or allergic.

Chronic dry skin may also indicate that you have psoriasis. There are five types, but 80 percent of cases are diagnosed as plaque psoriasis, a genetically linked disorder that causes patches of raised, reddish skin covered by silvery-white scales.

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

Published: 26 May 2010

Last Modified: 29 Jul 2013