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What's causing your dry skin problem?


WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

There are lots of good reasons to do something about your dry, itchy skin - your looks, your health, and your sanity. So it's time to put down the back scratcher and figure out what's really causing your dry skin problem.

For many, dry skin is not a sign of a skin condition or disease, but is simply caused by harsh soaps, itchy clothing, misusing moisturiser, and long, hot showers. But the medications you take - and even medical conditions such as diabetes, psoriasis, hypothyroidism, and malnutrition - can also cause severe dry skin. Read on to understand how and why these problems dry out your skin.

Understanding dry skin

Normal, healthy skin is coated in a thin layer of natural lipids, or fatty substances. They keep in moisture, leaving the skin soft and supple.

What causes dry skin - or xerosis, as it's known medically? Usually, something in the environment - or something you're doing to your skin - is stripping away these fatty oils, leaving your skin unprotected.  Less often, the cause is internal; a health condition, menopause or genetic predisposition is making your skin dry out.

While patches of dry, itchy skin can appear anywhere, it's most common on the arms, hands, lower legs and abdomen.  Dry skin is often felt more than it's seen, but on some people it can be noticeable and embarrassing.  For many black people, dry skin is a special concern, since the flakes of skin can look grey.

If untreated, dry skin can sometimes lead to dermatitis - inflammation of the skin - swelling, and infection. The good news is that just as most causes of dry skin are external, most cures for dry skin are external. With careful dry skin care, you can usually solve the problem.

Misusing moisturiser

If you've been contending with dry skin, you've probably already tried a moisturiser - if not dozens.  But while moisturisers are a crucial part of dry skin care, experts say that we don't always use them very well.

One mistake some people make is applying moisturiser on dry skin, when it's least likely to help. Put on moisturiser when your skin is still damp. That way, the moisturiser is trapping the moisture still on your skin. Your skin shouldn't be sopping wet -- just pat yourself dry with a towel and put it on. Let it soak in for a few minutes, and then towel off the excess.

You've also got to get the right type of moisturiser. Experts recommend that people with dry skin get mild moisturisers that contain no perfumes or alcohols. Often a simple budget moisturiser can do a good job. The moisturiser must also be thick and greasy in order to seal in the moisture needed for good dry skin care.

One simple moisturiser test is to put some of your lotion in the palm of your hand and flip your hand over. If it runs or drips, it's not thick enough for dry skin.

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