Dry skin isn't usually serious, but it can be uncomfortable and unsightly.
Serious dry skin conditions â an inherited group of disorders called ichthyosis â can sometimes be disfiguring and upsetting. Fortunately, most dry skin is caused by environmental factors that can be at least partially controlled. These factors include hot or cold weather, low humidity, and soaking in hot water.
You can do a lot on your own to improve your skin, including using moisturizers and avoiding harsh, drying soaps. Chronic or severe dry skin problems may require evaluation by a doctor who specializes in skin (dermatologist).
Dry skin is often temporary â you get it only in winter, for example â but it may be a lifelong condition. Signs and symptoms of dry skin depend on your age, your health, where you live, time spent outdoors and the cause of the problem. Dry skin is likely to cause one or more of the following:
Most cases of dry skin respond well to lifestyle and home remedies. See your doctor if:
Dry skin (xerosis) often has an environmental cause. Certain diseases also can significantly affect your skin. Potential causes of dry skin include:
Your doctor is likely to conduct a physical exam and ask about your medical history, including when your dry skin started, what factors make it better or worse, your bathing habits, your diet, and how you care for your skin.
Your doctor may suggest certain diagnostic tests to check whether your dry skin is the result of an underlying medical condition, such as an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).
Dry skin is usually harmless. But when it's not cared for, dry skin may lead to:
These complications are most likely to occur when your skin's normal protective mechanisms are severely compromised. For example, severely dry skin can cause deep cracks or fissures, which can open and bleed, providing an avenue for invading bacteria.
Try these tips to keep skin from getting excessively dry:
The following measures can help keep your skin moist and healthy:
Moisturize. Moisturizers provide a seal over your skin to keep water from escaping. Apply moisturizer several times a day and after bathing. Thicker moisturizers work best, such as over-the-counter brands Eucerin and Cetaphil.
You may also want to use cosmetics that contain moisturizers. If your skin is extremely dry, you may want to apply an oil, such as baby oil, while your skin is still moist. Oil has more staying power than moisturizers do and prevents the evaporation of water from the surface of your skin.
Another possibility is ointments that contain petroleum jelly (Vaseline, Aquaphor). These may feel greasy, so you might want to use them only at night.
Choose fabrics that are kind to your skin. Natural fibers, such as cotton and silk, allow your skin to breathe. But wool, although natural, can irritate even normal skin.
Wash your clothes with detergents without dyes or perfumes, both of which can irritate your skin. These products may be labeled as "free."
If dry skin causes itching, apply cool compresses to the area. To reduce inflammation, use a nonprescription hydrocortisone cream or ointment, containing at least 1 percent hydrocortisone. If these measures don't relieve your symptoms or if your symptoms worsen, see your doctor or consult a dermatologist.
Anyone can develop dry skin. But you may be more likely to develop the condition if you: