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Dry skin

Definition

Dry skin is most common in your lower legs, arms, sides of the abdomen (flanks), and thighs. The symptoms of dry skin include:

  • Scaling
  • Itching
  • Cracks in the skin

Alternative Names

Skin - dry; Winter itch

Causes

Dry skin is common. It happens more often in the winter when cold air outside and heated air inside cause low humidity. Forced-air furnaces make skin even drier.

The skin loses moisture and may crack and peel, or become irritated and inflamed. Bathing too frequently, especially with harsh soaps, may contribute to dry skin. Eczema may cause dry skin.

Home Care

Keep the skin moist (called lubricating or moisturizing the skin). Use ointments (such as petroleum jelly), creams, or lotions 2 - 3 times a day. Moisturizers should not contain alcohol, scents, dyes, or other chemicals. Using a humidifier in your home will also help.

Moisturizers and emollients work best when they're applied to skin that is wet or damp. After washing or bathing, pat the skin dry and then apply the moisturizer right away.

You can use different types of emollients or moisturizers at different times of the day. Apply these substances as often as you need to keep your skin soft.

Avoid anything that makes your symptoms worse, including:

  • Sweating -- be careful not to overdress during warmer weather
  • Strong soaps or detergents, as well as chemicals and solvents
  • Sudden changes in body temperature or stress, which may cause you to sweat and make your condition worse
  • Triggers that cause your allergy symptoms

When washing or bathing:

  • Bathe less often and keep water contact as brief as possible. Short, cooler baths are better than long, hot baths.
  • Use gentle skin care cleansers instead of regular soaps. Only use them on your face, underarms, genital areas, hands, and feet.
  • Do not scrub or dry the skin too hard or for too long.
  • After bathing, apply lubricating creams, lotions, or ointments on the skin while it is still damp. This will help trap moisture in the skin.

Other tips include:

  • Use a humidifier if the air is dry.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Apply cool compresses to itchy areas, and try over-the-counter cortisone creams or lotions if your skin is inflamed.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

  • You feel itchy without a visible rash
  • Dryness and itching are preventing you from sleeping
  • You have any open cuts or sores from scratching
  • Home care measures do not relieve your dryness and itching

References

Habif TP. Atopic dermatitis. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology. 5th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 5.

Lim HW. Eczemas, photodermatoses, papulosquamous (including fungal) diseases, and figurate erythemas. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 446.


Review Date: 8/10/2012
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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