If your dry skin has become chronic, swollen, or painful, it might be time to talk with a dermatologist about eczema.

Our skin is one of our most resilient organs, protecting us from harmful microorganisms, regulating our temperature, and so much more. But as resilient as our skin is, it can also be incredibly sensitive, often changing drastically when something is out of balance.

For example, dry, itchy, and irritated skin is one of the telltale signs of eczema, a chronic inflammatory skin condition. But does dry or even flaky skin always mean that you have eczema — and how can you tell when you just have dry skin versus eczema?

We outline some of the key differences between dry skin and eczema, including treatments for both and where to turn next if you’re looking for a diagnosis.

Most people experience dry skin from time to time — whether from harsh chemicals, lack of a daily moisturizing routine, or some other cause. But while it’s not unusual for your skin to feel dry every now and then, some people experience chronic dry skin.

One of the most common causes of chronic dry skin is an inflammatory skin condition called eczema. When you have eczema, you experience flare-ups of inflammation affecting your skin, leading to itchy, dry patches, bumps and sores, and other symptoms.

Even though eczema causes chronic dry skin, not all dry skin is eczema — here are the major differences between the two:

  • Eczema, sometimes called atopic dermatitis, is an inflammatory skin condition that causes patches of dry, itchy, and inflamed skin. Several different types of eczema exist, and there are a variety of risk factors for developing the condition.
  • Dry skin can develop when the skin lacks hydration, resulting in skin that looks and feels tight, rough, itchy, flaky, or even scaly and cracked. Dry skin typically develops due to lack of moisture or because of another underlying health condition.

Most people with dry skin can manage their symptoms by taking steps like creating an appropriate skin care routine, drinking more water, and practicing gentle bathing habits.

But for people with eczema, symptoms like dry skin go through periods of remission and flare-ups. Because eczema flare-ups are chronic, managing these symptoms requires a multifaceted approach that involves more than just routine moisturizing.

According to the National Eczema Association, dry skin is one of the most frequent triggers for eczema. Eczema triggers refer to anything that causes eczema symptoms to flare up and worsen.

However, having dry skin doesn’t necessarily always mean that you have eczema. It also doesn’t mean that your dry skin will develop into eczema.

Experts still aren’t entirely sure of exactly what causes people to develop eczema. However, research has shown that the condition commonly develops in childhood, most likely due to a combination of factors — genetics, environment, and the immune system, to name a few.

Eczema treatment involves multiple approaches that target symptoms during flare-ups while also reducing the risk of future flare-ups. And there’s a significant overlap between the treatment for dry skin and the treatments for managing eczema.

Treating dry skin

Dry skin can be extremely uncomfortable, causing symptoms like itching, scaling, stinging, burning, cracking, or even bleeding. Because of this, it’s important to moisturize dry skin and restore hydration before it begins to feel worse.

If you’ve been dealing with skin that feels dry, itchy, or sore, here are a few steps you can take to hydrate and heal your skin:

  • Choose gentle cleaners: Harsh chemicals in skin care and body care products can dry out and even irritate the skin. When choosing soap, body wash, or even lotion, try to pick products that have gentle, natural ingredients.
  • Dry more gently: If you’re someone who scrubs your skin down with your towel after the shower, consider changing your technique. Patting the skin instead of rubbing it can leave more moisture behind for your skin to absorb.
  • Moisturize skin daily: Skin can lose its moisture for any number of reasons, which is why it’s so important to moisturize daily if you have dry skin. Instead of using just lotion, opt for adding cream, oil, or ointment to lock in more moisture.
  • Change your environment: Environmental factors play a huge role in skin health, but you can tailor your environmental adjustments to meet your dry skin needs. Changes like using a gentle detergent or adding a humidifier are just two steps that can help heal your skin.

Treating eczema

One of the main symptoms of eczema is dry skin, so all the tips above support managing eczema symptoms and reducing possible flare-ups. However, for many people with eczema — especially severe eczema — treatment involves more than only moisturizing to heal dry skin.

For example, if you have eczema, it’s important that you take the time to identify your triggers. Once you’re able to recognize the things that trigger your symptoms, you can avoid them and help prevent future flare-ups.

Some people with eczema also benefit from medications that treat symptoms, reduce inflammation, and prevent flare-ups. Some of the most commonly used medications to treat eczema include:

Other treatment approaches, like wet wrapping and phototherapy, can also help manage severe eczema symptoms. Learn more about at-home remedies or DIY creams to try in these articles.

Next steps

If you think your dry skin might be something more than dry skin, consider talking with a doctor with your concerns. If they suspect that you have eczema, they’ll likely refer you to a dermatologist for further testing and a diagnosis.

If you’re interested in speaking with a dermatologist directly, you can find a list of specialists in your area using the American Academy of Dermatology Association search tool.

Was this helpful?

Eczema may be one of the most common causes of dry skin, but all dry skin is not eczema — and eczema is not just dry skin.

While you can typically treat dry skin with small changes, eczema treatment often requires a more comprehensive approach to manage long-term symptoms.

If you’ve recently developed chronic dry, itchy, or irritated skin, it’s important to talk with a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and the treatment you need.