What causes dry skin?

If you’re wondering why the eff you’re suddenly dealing with strange dry skin patches on your face, you’re definitely not alone. Even the oiliest, most acne-prone people can suffer from dry patches and flakes, especially during the winter months (hello, extreme weather and low humidity). The struggle is real.

When you see those scale-y patches start to emerge, don’t shy away from heavy emollients to hydrate your skin all winter long. “Look for products that combine humectants like hyaluronic acid and glycerin with emollients like ceramides, petrolatum, and shea butter to lock in the moisture,” says Hadley King, MD, a New York-based dermatologist.

Also, consider swapping out your gel-based moisturizers and cleansers for cream-based formulations instead. If you’re acne-prone, make sure you use an oil-free moisturizer so you can apply it generously without risking a breakout. Look for labels that say non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic, which mean the product won’t clog pores or worsen acne.

If swapping out your moisturizer doesn’t nix your dry patches, you might also need to cut back on products that are potentially drying. These include retinol, AHAs, and BHAs. Making the switch to fragrance-free products may also help, says Jeanine B. Downie, MD, a dermatologist in New Jersey. Fragrance can irritate skin and dry it out, which you don’t want when you’re trying to replenish your complexion.

Your skincare routine aside, there may be some underlying issues leading to your dry skin patches. Here, dermatologists explain what might be going on with your skin, how to get relief ASAP, and what to do to prevent those patches from creeping back.

1. Cold Weather

“Skin tends to be driest in the winter because of cold temperatures, low humidity, and brisk winds,” says Dr. King. “Plus, dry heat from heaters can dry out our skin even more because more moisture is lost into the air from our skin in these conditions.”

The quickest way to combat cold weather-induced dry skin patches is to use a humidifier. They add moisture into the dry air to help hydrate your skin. They can also help if you’re dealing with a cold or the flu.

2. Your Makeup Remover

Taking off your makeup each night before bed is a necessary step in your nightly skincare routine. However, your makeup remover of choice could be causing damage. “Unfortunately, the same ingredients that take makeup off your skin may disrupt the microbiome and interfere with skin barrier function,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist in NYC.

“The latest trend in skincare is products that contain probiotic ingredients to support the healthy function of the outer skin layer,” says Dr. Zeichner, who is a fan of using them to offset negative effects from your makeup remover. He recommends using a lightweight daily face moisturizer that includes probiotics to re-balance your skin. Try this one from Éminence Organic Skin Care.

Éminence Organic Skin Care Clear Skin Probiotic Moisturizer dermstore.com $59.00

3. Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is an actual condition that causes you to suffer from dry, scaly skin. It affects more than three million people a year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). People who have it suffer from red, scaly, swollen, and greasy skin, reports the professional association. While seborrheic dermatitis is common on your scalp (you can blame it for your dandruff!), it can also affect more than the hair on your head.

“Dry, flaky patches that develop in your eyebrows, around the sides of the nose, and in your smile lines may actually be a form of dandruff,” says Dr. Zeichner. It might sound gross, but everyone’s skin has living yeast on it. “When yeast levels become too high, it can lead to inflammation and characteristic flaky patches,” he adds.

To stop flakes, make your dandruff shampoo do double duty as a face wash to keep skin problems in check. “Kamedis Dandruff Therapy shampoo contains zinc pyrithione to lower levels of yeast on the skin, banishing these dry patches,” explains Dr. Zeichner. The lightly foaming shampoo is also cruelty-free, a bonus to effectively healing the affected area.

4. Eczema/Atopic Dermatitis

According to Cleveland Clinic, 15 million Americans suffer from eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis. The widespread skin issue causes inflammation of the skin that results in a red, scaly, itchy rashes.

“Eczema is a genetic condition where your skin barrier isn’t working as well as it should be, leading to loss of hydration, inflammation, and dry patches on the skin,” says Dr. Zeichner. When choosing a cleanser, watch out for “true soaps, which have an alkaline pH and disrupt the outer skin layer.” Instead, opt for a gentle, non-soap body wash that adds hydration to your skin while you take a shower such as Dove Beauty Bar. “It’s a non-soap cleansing bar that moisturizes, soothes, and evens out skin texture.”

Dove Beauty Bar amazon.com $3.59

5. Rosacea

The AAD points out that 14 million Americans are affected by rosacea each year. “Rosacea is a condition where the skin is extra sensitive and overreactive to the environment,” says Dr. Zeichner. Some common symptoms are getting flushed easily and redness on your nose and cheeks, reports the AAD. “Patients also commonly develop dry patches,” says Dr. Zeichner.

Look for moisturizers that protect your skin from the harsh elements of the environment. Dr. Zeichner recommends Aveeno Ultra-Calming Daily Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 for the combination of “skin-soothing oat extract with anti-inflammatory feverfew, and mineral only UV protection.”

If you’re looking for extra moisture all over, here’s how to make a hydrating hair mask at home:

6. Your Diet

While there are certain factors that you can’t change, like genetics and the weather. But one you can control that plays a role in how your skin looks? Your diet. “You need to consume enough healthy fats to contribute to a healthy moisture barrier in the skin,” says Dr. King. Up your intake of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, such as salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chicken, and you may see an improved complexion as a result.

7. Hot Showers And Baths

“Long or frequent baths and showers, particularly in hot water, can also dry out the skin because they remove the protective oils naturally produced by the skin,” says Dr. King. “These oils form a protective barrier to help lock in moisture and protect us from harsh environmental conditions. When the oils are lost, water more easily evaporates from the skin, and it’s left dried out.”

To remedy this issue, consider taking a shower with luke-warm water instead hot water. If your skin is turning red, the water is too hot. Dr. King recommends incorporating a gentle body wash, like the Dove Beauty Bar above, into your routine, “which won’t strip the skin of oil and moisture.” And limiting your shower to not more than eight minutes a day.

8. Too Much Exfoliation

When going through your skincare routine, it’s important to avoid too much scrubbing on your skin. Over exfoliating can mess with that protective moisture barrier and cause your hydration to seep out more easily. Skin naturally exfoliates itself, but if you want to add in a scrub or chemical exfoliant, dermatologists agree that once or twice a week is plenty.

Nicole Saunders Freelance Writer Nicole Saunders is a fashion, beauty, and entertainment writer based in New York.

During the winter, I am constantly lotioning up my legs, arms, and face. It’s like my skin is sucking up the moisture right away and, before I know it, I have to reapply. Commercials of women slathering themselves in the latest cream and then touching their immaculately smooth skin give us the idea that moisturizer is the answer to dry winter skin. But here’s the thing: “Moisturizer” is kind of a misnomer. Moisturizers add a little bit of hydration to the skin, but their primary purpose is to seal in the moisture. So, while finding the right products is a big part of the formula, boosting your skin’s hydration—and cutting out habits that dehydrate your skin—are the true backbone to a skin-care regimen that can really help your dry, tight, itchy skin.

We asked top dermatologists to unveil the top 11 culprits of dry skin and the solutions to soothe cracks and flakiness for good.

1. You’re washing too often.

Over-cleansing is the number one reason for super dry skin. “The skin has a natural barrier, consisting of oil, water, and something called the ‘natural moisturizing factors,’” Lily Talakoub, M.D., dermatologist at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center, tells SELF. “When we wash our skin with a cleanser, soap, or body wash, it strips all the good skin hydrators off.” This is why she recommends oil-based cleansers to her patients dealing with bouts of dry skin and recommends that they only wash their face at night before bed. “In the morning, rinsing off in the shower is enough—cleansers should not be reapplied.”

2. Your water is too hot.

I love a long hot shower, but, unfortunately, my skin just can’t handle the heat. You know how even washing with water can hurt its natural barrier? Well, the hotter the water, the better it is at that. “Excessive exposure to hot water can strip the skin of essential oils leading to irritation and inflammation,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “The water in your shower should be the temperature of what you would imagine a heated pool to be—approximately 84 degrees F.” He also recommends keeping showers short—a maximum of 10 minutes—and patting your skin dry rather than rubbing it to avoid stripping the skin even more.

3. You’re using a cleanser that’s disturbing your skin’s natural pH.

When it comes to pH, you have acid on the low end and alkaline on the other (a pH of 7 is neural). Naturally, our skin is slightly acidic. This acidity is one of the ways our skin is protected from bacteria and other environmental aggressors. Traditional soaps (think old-school bar soaps) have an alkaline pH that can disrupt the outer skin layer. It’s better to use a cleanser that is pH-balanced to match the slightly acidic pH of the skin, says Zeichner. Another option is to find a cleanser with surfactants that effectively remove dirt without damaging the the outer skin layer. Zeichner recommends Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Foaming Cleanser ($10), which contains polymers that prevent the cleansing ingredient from penetrating into and irritating the skin.

4. You’re exfoliating more than necessary.

Exfoliating is without a doubt an important step in your skin-care routine, but you can overdo it. Experts recommend keeping it to a maximum of twice a week and even less frequently than that for dry skin. “If you do exfoliate, it’s important to replenish the lost oils and moisture from your skin,” says Talakoub. Choose a moisturizer that is more oil than water like Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil ($72). You can apply it right on top of your daily moisturizer to help seal in hydration.

5. You need a thicker moisturizer.

Just like you swap your crop tops and shorts for leggings and cable-knit sweaters once fall turns a corner, it’s important to switch up your skin-care regimen with the change in season. In winter there’s less moisture in the air, which causes the water in your skin to evaporate more quickly than in the humid summer months. This means you’re more likely to be flaking, cracking, and peeling. That’s why Jerome Garden, M.D., the director of the Physicians Laser and Dermatology Institute in Chicago, recommends switching out your lightweight lotions and moisturizers for a thicker ointment or cream that contains higher amounts of oils in the winter. Also look for products with ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids like Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 ($127). This trifecta mimics the make-up of the skin’s lipid layer, says Dendy Engelman, M.D., a dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York.

6. You’re applying your moisturizer at the wrong time.

In addition to selecting the right kind of moisturizer, you also want to make sure you’re applying it correctly to avoid dry skin. Put on your moisturizer when your skin is still damp is the best way to make sure it absorbs fully. “After a shower, pat dry your skin with a towel and then apply the moisturizer which will lock in that moisture,” he says. Do the same each time you wash your hands during the day. If you wait until your skin is totally dry (say, more than five minutes after you wash), you’ll have missed the lock-it-in window.

7. You’re not drinking enough.

It might sound too simple to be true, but where exactly did you think your skin was getting the water it needs to stay hydrated? “Proper hydration with water is important to keep fluid moving efficiently through the capillaries,” says Engelman. “It’s easier to get dehydrated when we are not making it a priority, or when it’s cold outside and water is evaporating faster.” In addition to chugging water on the reg, a diet rich in healthy fats can help to improve the moisture-holding capacity of the skin. You can get omega-3 and omega-6 oils from foods like salmon, flaxseed, and algae oil. “They keep the membrane around each skin cell healthy to lock moisture in the skin,” says Engelman.

8. You’re taking certain medications that can dry out your skin.

Many medications—both over the counter and prescription—come with the side effect of dry skin. “Some meds dry your skin as part of their action, such as acne medications like benzoyl peroxide or retinoids, but other medications used for conditions like high blood pressure can dry your skin as well,” says Garden. Chemotherapy, for instance, can do a serious number on your skin (and nails, and hair). Not sure about a certain medication you’ve been taking? Run it by your doc and ask for a recommendation for treating this potential side effect.

9. You’re battling a skin or other health-related condition.

Eczema and psoriasis are skin conditions that can lead to super dry skin. Additionally, other illnesses like thyroid disease and diabetes are known to dry out skin. It’s important to work with a doctor to treat the underlying cause of dryness. In these cases, it’s important to use moisturizers that are made specifically for sensitive skin, as certain ingredients such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and retinol are known to cause flare-ups.

10. It’s genetic (womp, womp).

Some people are just born with genetically dry skin, making them more prone to flakiness than the average person. “Scientists have found many mutations in essential proteins that play a role in forming the skin barrier,” explains Garden. “These mutations leave people with naturally dry skin.” For people who have these hereditary predispositions, he recommends applying a heavy a moisturizer with ceramides, a moisturizing protein that’s easily lost in the skin of these patients.

11. You don’t wear gloves in cold weather.

We’re not trying to be your mom here, but you really ought to get in the habit of wearing gloves when you go outside. Not because the cold makes you sick (it doesn’t), but because the cold air exacerbates dry skin. Engelman says, “The face and hands can be easily susceptible to dryness because they aren’t usually covered, unlike the rest of your body.” What’s worse, dry skin cracks more easily, which can be uncomfortable and lead to bleeding (and open cuts are invitations for infection). Keeping skin pliable with a good hydration regimen will make it less likely to crack. Engelman recommends showing extra care to the parts of the body that are more exposed and reapplying often.

During a recent facial, I listed my main skin concern as breakouts, and after a skin analysis, the aesthetician kindly let me know I’m not actually suffering from acne. And although I was pretty sure about the congestion (it is my face, after all), I was open to her explanation. Turns out, my skin is severely dehydrated, which came as a surprise, as I’d generally considered my skin to be oily or, at the very least, combination. But don’t be fooled: The skin can be both oily and dehydrated — a new type of combination skin, if you will.

“Dry skin is characterized by fewer oil-producing glands on the face and body,” says Ross C. Radusky, a board-certified dermatologist at SoHo Skin & Laser Dermatology. “Dehydrated skin, on the other hand, is a lack of water, not oil. So you can actually have an oily complexion but still have dehydrated skin.”

Most of us understand the negative impacts of dehydration on our overall health, but who knew it had the potential to wreak such visible havoc on our faces? In order to understand the difference between overall dryness and dehydration, I consulted a few experts, who share the three steps to healthy, hydrated skin.

Step 1: Diagnosis

Basically, dryness refers to a skin type, and dehydration refers to a skin condition. “Dry skin lacks oil because it produces less sebum than normal skin, and the lack of sebum means the skin is without the lipids it needs to retain moisture and to build a strong barrier to protect against external aggressors,” says Tata Harper, organic skin-care mogul and founder of Tata Harper Skincare. “Dehydrated skin does not have enough water. Dehydration is caused by many external factors, but the most common are weather, environment, diet, and caffeine consumption, all of which can result in diminished water content within the skin.”

A good test, says Radusky, is to pinch your cheek. If it’s wrinkling with gentle pressure instead of holding its shape, your skin cells are desperate for water. He also notes that dehydrated skin will feel tight, look dull in the mirror, and you may notice more exaggerated wrinkles, or ones in places you don’t remember having them, along with more exaggerated dark circles beneath your eyes.

“Common signs of dehydrated skin include redness, lots of congestion, and inflammation,” adds Kate Somerville, paramedical aesthetician and founder of Kate Somerville Skincare.

Dry skin, on the other hand, tends to be uncomfortable, flaky, and itchy. The worst areas are typically near the eyebrows and around the corners of the nose and mouth. On the body, common trouble areas include the neck, the inside of the arms, and the thighs. “When things are at their worst, rubbing the skin might sound like grinding fine sandpaper,” explains Radusky. “And it isn’t snowing in your bathroom, but rather dried flakes of skin are falling.”

Step 2: Treatment

For dry skin, there are a number of ways to soothe parched complexions (i.e. amping up your antioxidant intake and reducing the number of acids in your routine). Dehydration, on the other hand, is a different story. While hydration is key if you’re suffering from dehydrated skin, there are a few other at-home treatment options to consider, too.

Exfoliate

“My favorite tip is exfoliating,” says Francesca Fusco, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “As dead skin builds up, it can diminish the absorption of moisturizers.” She recommends exfoliating at least once a week to remove dead skin cells, which “allows your moisturizer to work better.”

Add a Serum to Your Routine

“To hydrate the skin, aim for serums and apply these before any moisturizer,” says Radusky. “Serums are not moisturizers and vice-versa.” He recommends finding a serum with hyaluronic acid, which is the same ingredient used in many fillers.

Dry skin: Diagnosis and treatment

How do dermatologists diagnose dry skin?

To find out whether your dry skin is a sign of a skin disease, a dermatologist will carefully examine your skin. The doctor also will ask questions, such as when the problem began. This information will help the dermatologist make the right diagnosis and determine the best treatment. Tests may be needed if a dermatologist thinks your dry skin is due to a health problem.

How do dermatologists treat dry skin?

Your dermatologist may recommend the following:

  • Moisturizer: Applying a moisturizer frequently throughout the day can help. It can make the skin softer, smoother, and less likely to crack. Body moisturizers come in a few forms — ointments, creams, lotions, and oils. Your dermatologist can tell you which is recommended for you.

    For very dry skin, a moisturizer that contains urea or lactic acid may be helpful. These ingredients help the skin hold water. You can find these ingredients in both prescription moisturizers and those that you can buy without a prescription. A drawback is that these ingredients can sting if you have eczema or cracked skin.

  • Medicine: When skin is extremely dry, your dermatologist may prescribe a medicine that you can apply to your skin. This may be a corticosteroid (cortisone-like) or an immune modulator (tacrolimus, pimecrolimus). These medicines tend to be quite good at relieving the itch, redness, and swelling. You also may need to use a moisturizer several times a day.

  • Changes to your day: If your dry skin is caused by something that you are doing, such as immersing your hands in water all day, you may need to stop doing this for a few days. When you start up again, you may need to wear gloves or apply a special moisturizer throughout the day.

Outcome

Using a moisturizer frequently throughout the day helps many people. If this does not help, you should see a dermatologist.

There are few things worse (beauty-wise!) than having dry, rough, flaking, itchy— or, ouch, cracked— skin on your face. Not only can parched skin look unsightly, even making your face appear older than it actually is and makeup difficult to apply, but it can also be itchy and painful and make your complexion susceptible to other issues, such as sensitivity and redness.

We asked top skin experts, including dermatologists and Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab scientists, for their best advice on the causes of and treatments for dry skin on the face.

What causes dry, flaky skin and dry patches on the face?

There is a laundry list of possible culprits, from the weather and environment to certain products and skin conditions. “Lack of hydration in skin makes your complexion dull and accentuates wrinkles, and it’s more likely to occur in winter,” explains Jeanine Downie, M.D., a dermatologist at Image Dermatology in Montclair, New Jersey.

“Cold and windy conditions may dehydrate your face due to lack of humidity in the environment, and dryness can also be caused by irritating products that can strip natural oils, like those with alcohol, astringents and harsh acids.” Other potential factors prompting dry skin on the face can include over-cleansing or exfoliating, which can also deplete skin’s oils, as well as skin and health conditions that cause skin dehydration, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema), psoriasis, and diabetes.

How to treat dry skin on the face

By making small lifestyle changes and choosing the right skin care products, you can stop dry skin and nix flaky patches on your face pretty quickly. Here are dermatologist- and expert-approved ways to hydrate parched skin fast:

1. Reach for a hydrating lotion or cream.

According to GH Beauty Labs testing, “face lotions and creams are generally more hydrating than oils, serums, and other formulas — and they can increase skin’s moisture for hours,” says GH Beauty Lab Director Birnur Aral, Ph.D. Look for products with “humectants, such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which can bind or hold on to water effectively,” Aral says, and “ingredients that help repair the skin barrier, such as niacinamide and ceramides.”

Our top pick is Good Housekeeping Seal star Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream. In our tests, it raised hydration by 50 percent over 24 hours, more than any other facial skin care product the Lab has evaluated. See this along with the GH Beauty Lab’s best-tested moisturizers for dry skin on the face, below.

Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream Olay amazon.com $20.03 HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator SkinMedica dermstore.com $151.30 Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion+ Clinique nordstrom.com $28.00 Resveratrol Lift Night Infusion Cream Caudalie dermstore.com $76.00

2. Moisturize often.

“The best treatment to replenish skin hydration is applying a topical face moisturizer morning and evening,” Dr. Downie says. Consistency is key: Moisturizing skin twice daily (not just when you see or feel symptoms of dryness) will keep skin healthy long-term and prevent dehydration from occurring in the first place.

3. And moisturize correctly.

To help heal dehydrated skin quickly, apply a layer of face moisturizer on clean skin over any other skin care products such as serums or treatments. Massage your moisturizer into skin using a circular motion. “The technique helps push hydrating ingredients deeper into rough patches and dry lines for an immediate plumping effect,” says Ava Shamban, M.D., a dermatologist in Los Angeles.

4. Give lips extra hydration

Kiehl’s Lip Balm #1 Kiehl’s nordstrom.com $10.00

Your lips can be the most parched area of all, since they have fewer protective layers of skin. Apply a rich lip balm or treatment every time your moisturize your face, including morning and evening, and throughout the day as needed, since eating and drinking can remove the product.

The most effective formulas contain a combination of moisturizing ingredients (e.g. plant oils like sunflower and castor and emollients like squalane and triglycerides) and occlusive ingredients (such as petrolatum, beeswax or plant waxes and butters like shea and cocoa), which form a protective barrier to lock in the nourishment and hydrate, too, Aral explains. The GH Beauty Lab pick below, Kiehl’s Lip Balm #1, contains the moisturizer squalane and occlusive petrolatum.

5. Use a mild face cleanser

Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser Cetaphil walmart.com $9.99

Don’t grab any old soap: Some face washes can over-cleanse skin, exacerbating dryness. “A sulfate- and soap-free cleanser specifically for the face will be pH-balanced and gentle to maintain skin’s barrier without stripping,” says Whitney Bowe, M.D., a New York City dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin.

For dry skin on the face, choose a formula that also contains moisturizing ingredients, such as glycerin. Cetaphil Daily Face Cleanser was a winner of the GH Beauty Lab’s face cleansers test, scoring well for making skin feel soft and hydrated, and helps to sweep away dirt and makeup without stripping skin of oils or leaving skin feeling dried out.

6. Turn down the heat when you wash your face

Hot and steamy water might feel amazing, but it can be harmful to skin, Dr. Bowe says, by disrupting the barrier, which can cause sensitivity. “For the most skin-friendly cleanse, make sure the water temperature is lukewarm and test it with a finger first,” suggests GH Beauty Lab senior chemist Sabina Wizemann. You can also try washing your face only in the evening to avoid dehydrating skin, rinsing with just water in the morning instead, suggests Tess Mauricio, M.D., a dermatologist in San Diego.

7. Be smart with exfoliation

No7 Radiant Results Revitalising Daily Face Polish No7 ulta.com $9.99

While you may think of exfoliation as a way to slough off dry, flaky patches, a harsh face peel or scrub is the enemy of parched skin, as it can disrupt skin’s moisture barrier and remove its naturally-occurring hydrating oils. Avoid stronger acids like glycolic acid and rougher exfoliants like sugar and salt.

Instead, if you have dry skin on your face, try a gentler face peel formula with lactic acid or fruit acids or face scrub with round jojoba beads, which are less likely to be abrasive on skin. GH Beauty Lab test winner No7 Radiant Results Revitalising Face Daily Face Polish is packed with nourishing ingredients to gently lift away dead skin without additional irritation. Just be sure to limit use of your exfoliator to once per week, the GH Beauty Lab recommends, to avoid dehydrating skin.

8. Invest in a humidifier

“I always recommend that my patients use a humidifier while they sleep to boost skin’s moisture levels,” Dr. Downie advises, as it combats dry air that can parch skin.

9. Deep treat flaky spots

Healing Ointment Aquaphor amazon.com $12.87

A GH beauty editor go-to trick for curing dry skin overnight: Seal your moisturizer in with a thick coat of a rich balm or ointment that can be applied to facial skin, such as Aquaphor, which has the Good Housekeeping Seal. It functions as an occlusive, locking hydrating skin care ingredients and moisture into skin as you sleep so you wake up softer, smoother, and less parched.

If you’re heading outdoors for extended periods of time in cold, dry winter weather, the balm acts like a “coat” for your face, protecting any exposed skin from the elements and preventing skin from becoming chapped or irritated.

10. Hydrate!

Moisturized skin comes from the inside out, too. “Drinking enough water definitely improves skin hydration,” Dr. Downie says. “Aim for eight glasses, or 64 fluid ounces, of water per day.”

April Franzino Beauty Director April Franzino is the Beauty Director at Good Housekeeping, part of the Hearst Women’s Lifestyle Beauty Group.

10 Surprising Causes of Dry Skin

The general cause of itchy, dry skin might seem like a no-brainer: It’s a lack of moisture. But where does that lack of moisture come from? “Dry skin is caused by an impaired skin barrier and dysfunction or deficiency in the necessary healthy fats in the top layer of the skin,” says Shari Marchbein, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Downtown Dermatology in New York City. Normally, the top layer of skin is made up of dead cells and natural oils, which help trap moisture to keep the skin soft and smooth, according to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. But if there’s not enough water in this top layer of cells, which can happen if the protective oils are diminished, dry skin could result.

In most cases, experiencing dry skin, or xerosis cutis, isn’t a big concern. According to MedlinePlus, it’s extremely common, can occur in people of all ages, and can pop up anywhere on the body, from the hands and face to the legs and stomach. Dr. Marchbein says that dryness can make the skin red, flaky, or itchy, which can be uncomfortable, but beyond that, there’s usually not much to worry about.

RELATED: The Skin-Care Glossary Every Woman Needs

But sometimes the dryness will be severe and may indicate an underlying skin issue or health condition (more on that below). If the dryness is so severe that it interferes with your ability to work or sleep, if the skin becomes cracked or bleeds, or if it doesn’t seem to be responding to prescription treatment, be sure to visit your primary care doctor or a board-certified dermatologist, suggests Harvard Health.

Your first thought when you experience dry skin may be to pile on moisturizer. And while that’ll help and you’ll likely see changes within a few minutes, that’s a temporary solution. It may be more beneficial to get to the bottom of what’s causing the dryness in the first place. You might be surprised by what you find — some skin dehydrators lurk in surprising places.

RELATED: 10 Natural Dry-Skin Remedies to DIY at Home

If you’re looking for remedies for dry skin, check this list first to find out whether one of these offenders may be to blame, and find out how experts suggest you combat these dehydrators. You should see improvements within a week or two of caring for your skin properly, according to Harvard Health.

1. Fragrance Has the Potential to Cause Skin Irritation

“Fragrance has a tendency to irritate dry skin or make it worse, so avoid deodorants and skin-care products that are filled with fragrance,” says Amy Forman Taub, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern Medicine in Lincolnshire, Illinois. That’s because fragrance is a common source of allergic contact dermatitis. It could take several exposures for the skin to react, or you might see a reaction the very first time, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Check the ingredients list for the word “fragrance,” and remember “fragrance-free” is your friend. Body lotions and creams may do more harm than good when packed with perfumes. Read labels carefully. Lavender oil and other botanical oils have natural preservative properties and are used in cosmetics that may still be labeled “fragrance free.”

2. Soap May Sap Moisture From the Skin and Scalp

“Many soaps, detergents, and shampoos subtract moisture from your skin and scalp, as they are formulated to remove oil,” says Gretchen Frieling, MD, a board-certified dermatopathologist in Newton, Massachusetts. It’s important to carefully choose face washes, body washes, and laundry detergents. Using only moisturizing body wash is better than a harsh bar soap, says Jeffrey Benabio, MD, a dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. Joel Schlessinger, MD, a dermatologist in Omaha, Nebraska, warns against harsh detergents — and even fabric softeners — if you have dry skin. Instead, look for gentle laundry soaps like Seventh Generation Free and Clear.

RELATED: A Detailed Guide to Scalp Eczema

3. Genetics Can Affect Your Risk for Dry Skin

Chalk it up to another thing you can blame on your mom and dad: Researchers say that dry skin can be inherited. According to a study, mutations in genes that control the production of the protein filaggrin, which plays a role in forming and hydrating the skin barrier, can cause several skin conditions. People with these mutations, estimated to be about 10 percent of the population, suffer drier skin and have a greater chance of developing eczema. Atopic dermatitis is a common type of eczema.

If you’ve always had dry skin or if it runs in your family, it’s essential that you’re diligent with daily moisturization. “Look for ceramides and lipids in moisturizers, which help build and reinforce the skin barrier,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

4. Hard Water Can Prevent Moisturizers From Absorbing

When tap water contains a high concentration of minerals like magnesium and calcium, it’s known as hard water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Those minerals can leave a film on skin that causes dryness. “Heavy metals turn the oils on skin into a thick substance that plugs glands, aggravates conditions like acne and rosacea, and prevents moisturizers from being absorbed into the skin,” says Dennis Gross, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon in New York City. Investing in a home filtration system, whether a whole-house treatment or one that attaches to the faucet, can help, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Gross also recommends adding skin-care products that contain vitamins A and C to your routine because they counteract the coating deposited by hard water.

RELATED: 6 Fascinating Facts You Probably Never Knew About Your Skin

5. Acne Medications and Retinol Speed Skin Cell Turnover, Causing Dryness

Salicylic acid can be great at treating acne, but it may also dry out your skin when you first start using it, according to MedlinePlus. Dryness is a common side effect of retinol, too, and it happens because retinol loosens the connection between cells on the skin’s surface, according to a study published in August 2017 in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. The good news is that you don’t have to give up these skin-care saviors, though cutting down on their use may deliver results without irritation. “Reduce the frequency of use from every day to every other day or so, make sure you choose a gentle cleanser that isn’t compounding the issue, and ask your dermatologist for a less drying prescription if necessary,” Dr. Forman Taub says.

The best frequency will depend on your specific skin type, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Take burning, peeling, and flaking as signs you need to stop using the product, Dr. Frieling says. “This is not something to play guessing games with and use trial and error,” she notes. Schedule an appointment with your dermatologist and bring the product with you so the doctor can evaluate it and make sure it’s right for your skin.

6. Dry Air, Indoors or Out, Can Increase Symptoms of Dry Skin

Sometimes the air inside can be as punishing on your skin as the air outside. Forced air, especially heat, can draw humidity levels down, making skin feel dry and itchy, Frieling says. Luckily, you don’t need to suffer with dry, itchy skin all winter: A humidifier can help restore moisture to the air in your house. It’s best to set yours between 30 and 50 percent humidity, according to the Cleveland Clinic. “Additionally, it’s a good idea to keep a mild — 1 percent — hydrocortisone cream on hand. Use it early if you see signs of chapped or dry skin,” Dr. Schlessinger says. Hydrocortisone, which sometimes requires a prescription, reduces swelling, redness, and itching and helps heal and soothe dry, chapped skin and speed its healing, according to MedlinePlus.

RELATED: What Causes Chapped Lips?

7. Zealous Handwashing Can Lead to Redness and Irritation

“Some people with dry skin just wash their hands constantly,” Forman Taub says. That won’t help the dryness because too much washing can lead to dry, cracked skin, according to Piedmont Healthcare. This can be a big issue for people who work in industries that require frequent handwashing, such as health care. To mitigate the drying effects of your sanitary habit, use lukewarm water (hot water strips your skin’s moisture), avoid alcohol-based soaps, and blot your hands dry instead of rubbing them with a paper towel, according to EveryNurse. Ointments tend to be thicker than moisturizers, so keep an ointment (such as Aquaphor) on hand and apply after each wash.

8. Long, Hot Showers Can Contribute to Skin Dehydration

It might be tempting to stand under the steaming-hot water for an extended period of time, especially during the cold months. But the practice could end up creating issues with your skin. “Taking long and steaming showers or baths can dry out the moisture in your skin,” Frieling says. Marchbein says to limit showers to no more than five minutes and to keep the water temperature warm, not hot. Afterward, apply a moisturizing cream within one minute of getting out of the shower, Marchbein adds. Moisturizers work best on damp skin, according to MedlinePlus.

RELATED: 7 Ways You Could Be Showering Wrong

9. Aging Can Increase Skin Dryness

Dry skin tends to become more of an issue as people get older. The Mayo Clinic notes that adults ages 40 or older are at an increased risk of experiencing dry skin, and it affects about half of the individuals in this age group. “As we get older, our skin produces less oil and gets drier,” Frieling says. For women, it could also be due to the hormone changes associated with menopause, according to Penn Medicine. The fix? Moisturize every day (or multiple times a day if needed), recommends the American Academy of Dermatology. Marchbein says to look for a moisturizer that contains ceramides, humectants (such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin), and petrolatum. These ingredients help replenish lost moisture and quickly repair the skin barrier, she says.

10. Certain Medical Conditions Can Cause Dry Skin

Skin issues such as psoriasis and eczema can make your skin more prone to dryness, Frieling says. But dry skin could also indicate something seemingly unrelated, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, malnutrition, kidney failure, or Sjögren’s syndrome, according to Harvard Health and Penn Medicine. So how might you know if the dryness is the result of something run-of-the-mill like the weather or something more serious? Frieling says to be on the lookout for inflamed areas, crusting, intense itchiness, hyperpigmentation, and rough, flaky, or scaly patches on the skin and take those as a hint it’s time to visit a doctor. Once you’ve nailed down the root cause for the dryness, your doctor can help you determine the proper treatment.

What Your Dry Skin Is Telling You

  • Moisturizing: Moisturizers create a seal on the skin that prevents moisture from escaping. It’s best applied after bathing, but can be applied multiple times per day. There are many cosmetic products that contain moisturizing elements, so if you have dry skin often, lean toward these products as often as possible.
  • Limit water temperature and exposure: Warm water is great for showering, but hot or scalding water can remove important oils from the skin. In addition, showering or bathing for too long (over 10 or 15 minutes in most cases) can remove important oils.
  • Choose moisturizing bath and shower products: Look for gentle cleansers or gels with moisturizers added in. There are numerous soap products containing added oils or fats.
  • Use a humidifier: If you struggle with dry skin or live in a low-humidity climate, a humidifier can be a great way to get more moisture in the air you live in.
  • Cover your skin: Keeping the skin covered in cold or dry weather can protect it from drying out. In addition, wearing rubber gloves can help protect the skin if you have to put your hands in water or harsh cleansers.
  • Wear breathable fabrics: Natural fibers like cotton and silk allow the skin to breathe and properly moisturize, while others like wool can irritate the skin. Also pay attention to detergents that don’t contain irritating items like dyes or perfumes.
  • Use cool compression: For itchy, dry skin symptoms, cool compression techniques can be a big help.
  • Ask about prescription creams: In certain cases of more severe dry skin, your dermatologist may prescribe a hydrocortisone cream or ointment.

Did you know?

What is dry skin?

Dry skin, also called xerosis, is a very common skin condition that occurs at all ages. Usually, it doesn’t represent a serious problem but sometimes it can be difficult to treat. Moreover, it might be correlated to other skin diseases or associated to pathological conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, Sjögren syndrome, malnutrition.

What does it look like?

Involved skin appears dehydrated, peeled, irritated and inflamed. It feels rough, scaly, sometimes painful, and itchy. Severe conditions may be characterized by intense redness and itchiness; skin shows the tendency to crack, causing deep fissures that may bleed and they are signs of extremely dry skin.

Dry skin at the microscope:

Skin represents our barrier against the environment and it consists in three layers: hypodermis, the deepest layer, constituted mainly by adipose tissue, with vessels, nerves; dermis, constituted by connective tissue, with collagen and elastin fibers, blood vessels, oil glands, hair follicles, sweat glands; epidermis, the outer layer, constituted by keratinocytes which divide and mature moving from the basal layer to the stratum corneum (the outermost compartment of the epidermis). Keratinocytes, localized in the stratum corneum, feature an insoluble structure composed of several proteins called cornified envelope, cytoplasm filled by keratin filaments and nuclear dissolution. These cells are embedded into lipid layers constituted by cholesterol, fatty acids and ceramides. Stratum corneum provides skin hydration1 and, in particular, lipids play a significant role against evaporation holding water. Sweat and oil glands products, skin natural moisturizing factors (consisting of a mixture of highly hygroscopic molecules as amino acids, sugars, lactic acid, urea) partecipate to moisture content maintenance, acting as endogenous humectants.

Skin owes its soft, pliable texture to its water content. Dry air (low humidity), probably the most common cause of dry skin, causes an evident reduction of water content. Furthermore, dry skin results when lipids are depleted and there is not enough water in the stratum corneum for it to function properly. Atopic dermatitis, a common dry skin condition in childhood, shows reduced lipids levels in the stratum corneum and, consequently, an important loss of water.2

Severe dry skin is a feature of the inherited group of disorders called ichthyosis: the most common form of ichthyosis is defined ichthyosis vulgaris, characterized by fine scaling that is most prominent over the legs and usually presents within the first few months of life.3

Furthermore, xerosis may represent a symptom in other skin diseases such as asteatotic eczema, lichen and psoriasis.

What causes dry skin?

Simple causes of lipids depletion include harsh soap, itchy clothing, long and hot showers or baths. An important environmental factor is represented by the exposure to hot or cold weather with low humidity levels. Xerosis often worsens in the winter, when several factors contribute to skin dryness: low temperature and low humidity associated to very hot and drying heating, cause a decreased amounts of water in the stratum corneum. During summer, constant exposure to air conditioning may produce similar effects.

Several drugs, as diuretics or topical and systemic retinoids, may temporary cause dry skin and, generally, it resolves interrupting the treatment.

In elderly, metabolic changes, tendency to reduce liquid intake, associated to the physiological skin aging process (keratinocytes move slowly from the basal layer of the epidermis to the stratum corneum and oil glands are less active), determine xerosis, thinning, and lost of elasticity. Hormone imbalances that occur in menopause, hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism can also experience severe skin dryness.

Why Do I need to contact a dermatologist?

Chronic or severe dry skin problems require a dermatologist’s advice. It’s important have a diagnosis to exclude concomitant skin diseases as mentioned above. Dermatologist may evaluate and identify causes and get the necessary treatment: commonly, for people with dry skin, the best treatment is a moisturized cream or emollients, but if necessary, he may prescribe a steroid cream or ointment in association. For clinical picture characterized by intense itchy, which interferes with daily activities and sleep, antihistamine pills may be prescribed.

Treatment and prevention

These are easy suggestions that are important to keep in mind:

  • Choose short showers over baths. Long baths or showers, especially in hot water, increase the loss of natural oils from the skin and worsen skin dryness. The shower should be in warm rather than hot water. Apply a moisturizer after shower or hands washing.
  • Apply moisturizing creams, emollients or ointments moisturizers several times a day: they are fundamental in dry skin treatment because they reconstitute cutaneous hydro-lipidic film holding water in the skin. Cream moisturizers, when applied they disappear when rubbed into the skin because of they are more popular than other treatments. They protect damaged and sensitive skin and make skin softer and smoother. They preserve natural skin lipids and limit dehydration trapping and sealing water in the stratum corneum.
  • Choose a non-alcohol-based moisturizer.
  • Use a mild non-soap skin cleanser. Harsh soaps remove the oils from the surface of the skin and dry it out.
  • Avoid antibacterial soaps.
  • Place a humidifier in your home or add it to the central heating system to maintain the air moisturized during the winter and in dry weather.
  • Avoid rubbing or scratching the skin.
  • Wear gloves, hats, and scarves in the winter.
  • Avoid dehydration caused by drinking alcohol and by neglecting to replace fluids lost through sweating.
  • Avoid itchy clothing because it might get more itchy. Dry skin is especially sensitive to contact irritants and it may worsen itching and redness.

For more information about dry skin condition contact:

1 Madison KC. Barrier Function of the skin: “La Raison d’ Être” of the epidermis. J Invest Dermatology 2003; 121 (2): 231-241

2 Imokawa G, Abe A, Jin K, et al. Decreased level of ceramides in stratum corneum of atopic dermatitis: an etiologic factor in atopic dry skin?. J Invest Dermatology 1991 Apr; 96: 523-526.

3 Hoffjan S, Steimmler S. On the role of the epidermal differentiation complex in ichthyosis vulgaris, atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. British Journal of Dermatology 2007; 157: 441-449.

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