Dry skin causes and treatment tips

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Expert tips for relieving dry skin conditions.

By Dr Roger Henderson

Dry skin – sometimes called xerosis by doctors – is a condition where the skin is red, scaly and itchy. The problem is usually worse in autumn and winter, and dry skin is most common on the face, hands, arms and legs. As we age, dry skin becomes more likely. It is not a serious problem usually, but can be uncomfortable and unsightly. Ageing, living in dry, cold or low-humidity climates and bathing or showering frequently make it more likely to occur.

Dr Roger Henderson looks at dry skin symptoms, causes and treatment tips:

What are the symptoms of dry skin?

Dry skin symptoms depend on your age, your general health, the amount of time you spend outdoors and the cause of the problem.

If you have dry skin, you’re likely to experience a feeling of skin tightness, especially after showering, bathing or swimming and the skin will look shrunken or dehydrated in the affected area. It will often feel and looks rough, and be very itchy, with flaking, scaling or peeling. There may be fine lines or cracks in the skin along with redness and occasionally some bleeding.

What are the causes of dry skin?

Potential causes of dry skin include:

  • Harsh soaps and detergents

Many popular soaps and detergents strip lipids and water from your skin. Deodorant and antibacterial soaps are usually the most damaging, as are many shampoos that dry out your scalp.

  • Weather

In general, your skin is driest in winter, when temperatures and humidity levels plummet. Winter conditions also tend to make many existing skin conditions worse. But the reverse may be true if you live in desert regions, where temperatures can soar, but humidity levels remain low.

  • Central heating and air conditioning

Central air and heating, wood-burning stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces all reduce humidity and dry your skin.

  • Hot baths and showers

Frequent showering or bathing, especially if you like the water hot and your baths long, breaks down the lipid barriers in your skin. So does frequent swimming, particularly in heavily chlorinated pools.

  • Sunlight

Like all types of heat, the sun dries the skin and so sun-damaged skin may have the appearance of dry skin.

Medical causes of dry skin

Potential medical causes of dry skin include:

  • Atopic dermatitis

This is one of the more common types of eczema, and those affected have more sensitive and drier skin. Many people with mild eczema confuse this skin condition with excessive dryness. Areas commonly affected include the face, sides of the neck, and fold areas around the elbows, wrists, knees and ankles.

  • Psoriasis

This skin condition is marked by a rapid build-up of rough, dry, dead skin cells that form thick scales.

  • Thyroid disorders

Hypothyroidism, a condition that occurs when your thyroid produces too little thyroid hormones, reduces the activity of your sweat and oil glands, leading to rough, dry skin.

Dry skin treatment tips

In most cases, dry skin problems respond well to home and lifestyle measures, such as using moisturisers 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 (non-prescription) 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.

When to see a doctor about dry skin

Fortunately, most cases of dry skin respond well to simple lifestyle changes but see your doctor if there is significant skin redness (this may be a sign of infection), if the dryness and itching interfere with sleeping, if you have open sores or infections from scratching or if there are large areas of scaling or peeling skin.

Dry skin self help tips and advice

Try the following self-help tips to ease dry skin conditions:

️ Moisturise

The most important thing is to moisturise your skin – moisturisers provide a seal over your skin to keep water from escaping and thicker moisturisers work best. Use warm water and limit your bath time as hot water and long showers or baths remove oils from your skin. Limit your bath or shower time to about 15 minutes or less, and use warm, rather than hot, water. Apply moisturisers immediately after bathing.

️ Use gentle soaps

Try to avoid harsh, drying soaps and instead use cleansing creams or gentle skin cleansers and bath or shower gels with added moisturisers. Experiment with several brands until you find one that works particularly well for you. A good rule of thumb is that your skin should feel soft and smooth after cleansing, never tight or dry.

️ Try a cool compress

If dry skin causes itching, apply cool compresses to the area.

️ Over-the-counter treatments

To reduce inflammation, use a non-prescription 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.

Net Doctor

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