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Dry skin

Ordinarily, dry skin isn't serious, but it can be uncomfortable and unsightly, creating fine lines and wrinkles.

Serious dry skin conditions — an inherited group of disorders called ichthyosis — can sometimes be disfiguring and upsetting. Fortunately, environmental factors that can be at least partially controlled cause most dry skin. These factors include hot or cold weather, low humidity and soaking in hot water.

Chronic or severe dry skin problems may require evaluation by a doctor who specializes in skin (dermatologist). But first you can do a lot on your own to improve your skin, including using moisturizers and avoiding harsh, drying soaps.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Dry skin is often temporary — you get it only in winter, for example — but it may be a lifelong condition. And although skin is often driest on your arms and lower legs, this varies from person to person. What's more, 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:

  • A feeling of skin tightness, especially after showering, bathing or swimming
  • Skin that feels and looks rough
  • Itching (pruritus)
  • Slight to severe flaking, scaling or peeling
  • Fine lines or cracks
  • Gray, ashy skin in people with dark skin
  • Redness
  • Deep cracks that may bleed

When to see a doctor

Most cases of dry skin respond well to lifestyle and home remedies. See your doctor if:

  • Your skin doesn't improve in spite of your best efforts
  • Dry skin is accompanied by redness
  • Dryness and itching interfere with sleeping
  • You have open sores or infections from scratching
  • You have large areas of scaling or peeling skin

Though most cases of dry skin (xerosis) have an environmental cause, certain diseases also can significantly affect your skin. Potential causes of dry skin include:

  • Weather. In general, your skin is driest in winter, when temperatures and humidity levels plummet. But the reverse may be true if you live in desert regions, where temperatures can soar, but humidity levels remain low.
  • Heat. Central heating, wood-burning stoves, space heaters and fireplaces all reduce humidity and dry your skin.
  • Hot baths and showers. Taking long, hot showers or baths can dry your skin. So can frequent swimming, particularly in heavily chlorinated pools.
  • Harsh soaps and detergents. Many popular soaps and detergents strip moisture from your skin. Deodorant and antibacterial soaps are usually the most damaging. Many shampoos may dry your scalp.
  • Sun exposure. Sun dries your skin, and its ultraviolet (UV) radiation penetrates far beyond the top layer of skin. The most significant damage occurs deeper, leading to deep wrinkles and loose, sagging skin.
  • Other skin conditions. People with skin conditions like atopic dermatitis (eczema) or a skin condition marked by a rapid buildup of rough, dry, dead skin cells that form thick scales (psoriasis) are prone to dry skin.

Although anyone can develop dry skin, you may be more likely to develop the condition if you:

  • Are older than age 40
  • Live in dry, cold or low-humidity climates
  • Have a job that requires you to immerse your skin in water, such as nurses and hairstylists
  • Swim frequently in chlorinated pools

In some people who have a tendency toward eczema, dry skin that's not cared for can lead to:

  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema). If you're prone to develop this condition, excessive dryness can lead to activation of the disease, causing redness, cracking and inflammation.
  • Infections. Dry skin may crack, allowing bacteria to enter, causing infections.

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.

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