Dry skin isn't usually serious. In most cases it's caused by factors like hot or cold weather, low moisture in the air, 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. But sometimes dry skin happens often or is severe. In these cases, you may need help from a doctor who specializes in skin (dermatologist).
Dry skin is often temporary — you get it only in winter, for example — 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:
Anyone can develop dry skin. But you may be more likely to develop the condition if you:
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:
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).
In most cases, dry skin responds well to lifestyle measures, such as using moisturizers and avoiding long, hot showers and baths. If you have very dry and scaly skin, your doctor may recommend you use an over-the-counter (nonprescription) cream that contains lactic acid or lactic acid and urea.
If you have a more serious skin disease, such as atopic dermatitis, ichthyosis or psoriasis, your doctor may prescribe prescription creams and ointments or other treatments in addition to home care.
Sometimes dry skin leads to dermatitis, which causes red, itchy skin. In these cases, treatment may include hydrocortisone-containing lotions. If your skin cracks open, your doctor may prescribe wet dressings to help prevent infection.
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.
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.
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care doctor. Sometimes, you may be referred directly to a specialist in skin diseases (dermatologist). Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For dry skin, some basic questions to ask include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.
Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:
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