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Dry, itchy, irritated, scaly skin is something many of us have had to deal with at some point.
The medical term for abnormally dry skin is xerosis cutis. Sometimes you may need your doctor’s help to combat this condition. But, other times, with the right home treatments and self-care, you may be able to find relief for your skin.
Here’s a look at the symptoms and causes of severe dry skin, and the steps you can take to help soothe and nourish your irritated, itchy skin.
The symptoms of severe dry skin often resemble regular, dry skin. However, what makes this condition more noticeable is the severity of the dryness and irritation, and how often it happens.
If you’re itching more than usual, have larger, scaly dry patches, or find that you’re going through tubs of moisturizer, you likely have severely dry skin.
Knowing how to identify this is the first step to finding relief.
Dr. Susan Massick, a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says with severely dry skin, you may notice:
- dryness that’s painful, itchy, or scaly
- redness that’s worsening or starting to scab, crust, peel, or scale off
- patches of gray, ashy-looking skin in people with darker skin tones
- skin that has fine cracks
- difficulty sleeping at night due to severe itching
- areas of infection with pus, blisters, odor, or pain
- symptoms not improving, or getting worse, despite the use of over-the-counter moisturizers
If your severely dry skin is annoying, but not affecting your daily life and your skin isn’t showing signs of infection, you may want to try the following self-care treatments.
If you’ve seen your doctor and have prescription medication, continue to use it. These home remedies aren’t meant to replace the treatment plan prescribed by your doctor.
1. Use the right soap
Lathering up with harsh soaps that contain irritants or strong fragrances can cause all sorts of problems for your skin.
To keep the base layer of your skin moisturized, the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology recommends using gentle soaps such as:
If you want to maximize the results, consider using a skin cleanser instead of soap. They recommend:
2. Take time to moisturize
Washing with the right soap is just part of the equation. To tackle severe dry skin head-on, you also need to seal in moisture right after drying off from a bath or shower.
When choosing a moisturizer, Massick says to look for ones that are free of fragrances, perfumes, and dyes. She also points out that ointment and cream are better than lotion because they contain more oil.
For maximum relief, Massick says the most effective natural moisturizer is petroleum jelly. “It’s extremely moisturizing with a thick emollient consistency,” she explains.
Some of her other favorites include:
- Vaniply ointment
- CeraVe healing ointment
- Aveeno eczema moisturizing cream
- CeraVe moisturizing cream
3. Turn down the heat
This is the simplest modification you can make at home.
When you take a bath or shower, use lukewarm water — not hot. Water that’s too warm can inflame your skin and also disrupt your skin’s natural balance of moisture. Also, try to limit your shower or bathing time to no more than 10 minutes.
If you like to keep the thermostat in your home or office on high, consider dialing it back. Heated air can rob your skin of moisture.
One way to add moisture to indoor air is to use a humidifier in your home or office. A humidifier can keep moisture circulating indoors, which may make it easier for your skin to retain its natural moisture.
4. Pat don’t rub
Treat your skin gently when washing and drying. Avoid rubbing your skin vigorously with a wash cloth or sponge when you’re in the bath or shower.
When drying off with a towel, try not to rub your skin. Instead, gently pat or dab your skin dry so there’s still a trace of moisture left on your skin.
5. Try a cold compress
When symptoms flare up and the itching and inflammation cause discomfort, consider applying a cold compress to the affected area.
To make your own cold compress:
- Put several ice cubes in a plastic bag, or use a small bag of frozen veggies.
- Run a cloth under cold water, then wrap the damp cloth around the bag of ice cubes or frozen vegetables.
- Place the cold compress on your skin for 15 minutes at a time.
- Gently pat your skin dry once you’re done.
6. Use an OTC hydrocortisone cream
If your dry skin is especially itchy or irritated, you may want to consider applying an over-the-counter (OTC) hydrocortisone cream or ointment to the affected area after using a cold compress.
Hydrocortisone creams come in different strengths. For the milder strengths, you don’t need a prescription. You can find these creams at your local drugstore or online. For stronger strengths, you’ll need a prescription from your doctor.
Be sure to follow the directions on the product when applying the cream. You can combine this treatment with a moisturizer. First apply the hydrocortisone cream and then add the moisturizer on top.
7. Watch what touches your skin
If possible, try to use laundry detergents that are formulated for sensitive skin. These detergents are typically gentler on your skin and less likely to cause irritation.
When choosing clothes, stay away from scratchy fabrics like wool. Fabrics like cotton and silk allow your skin to breathe, which makes them a good choice for both clothing and bed linens.
8. Consider natural products
With the growing interest in natural products and organic options, Massick says many consumers are embracing natural skin care options as well.
With that in mind, take a tour of your kitchen and bathroom. If you have any of these products in their natural form, they may be an option for your severely dry skin.
- Honey: With its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, honey can be used as a natural wound healer and moisturizer.
- Coconut oil: With antimicrobial and moisturizing properties, coconut oil can help keep your skin hydrated and may also reduce inflammation.
- Aloe vera: Most often used in gel form for soothing sunburned skin, aloe vera contains polysaccharides which may stimulate skin growth and help with healing dry, irritated skin.
- Oatmeal: Soaking in a colloidal oatmeal bath may help soothe dry, irritated skin.
Several common triggers may be the culprit behind your dry skin. While not an exhaustive list, Massick says these factors definitely top the list.
- Environmental triggers. The weather is often the most cited cause of severe dry skin, especially in winter. “Not only does the temperature drop, so does the humidity, which leads to drier air that can exacerbate your dry skin,” explains Massick. Plus, with heaters cranked up, and longer, hotter showers on the agenda, your skin may lose more moisture than usual.
- Certain skin diseases. Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can make you more susceptible to dry skin. “Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is the most common cause of dry, itchy skin in kids and adults,” says Massick.
- Systemic diseases. In addition to skin conditions, systemic diseases such as thyroid disease and diabetes, can also increase the risk of severe dry skin.
- Lack of moisture. Just like your body can get dehydrated, so can your skin. That’s why Massick stresses the importance of moisturizing your skin regularly and also drinking plenty of fluids to keep your skin hydrated from the inside.
- Age. Dry skin affects all ages. But it’s later in life that you may notice it the most. “Your skin becomes more sensitive and thinner over time,” says Massick. This may make your skin more prone to drying out quickly.
- Nutritional deficiencies. A lack of certain vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin B-6 and zinc, can cause dry, itchy skin, or skin that takes longer to heal.
If you want to get ahead of a dry skin issue, Massick suggests intervening early, especially if you tend to struggle with dry skin in the winter.
In addition to any treatments your doctor may give you, try to:
- avoid using harsh soaps
- stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids
- take lukewarm showers
- slather your skin with a gentle moisturizer after drying off
- avoid scratching your skin
- turn your thermostat down
- keep indoor moisture levels up
- protect your skin from the elements by wearing gloves, scarves, and any other clothing that can protect exposed skin
As with any health condition, if you have concerns, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.
But if you’re more of a “wait and see” type of person, it’s important to know the signs that may indicate it’s time to see your healthcare provider or dermatologist.
If you have severe dry skin, it’s a good idea to follow up with your doctor if you notice:
- your skin is oozing, blistering, or has an odor
- large areas of your skin are peeling
- you have an itchy rash that’s ring-shaped
- your dry skin doesn’t get better or gets worse after using home treatments for a couple of weeks
You may need a prescription ointment or medication to treat your symptoms.
Severe dry skin is a common condition that typically responds to treatment. It tends to be more prevalent in winter when the air is colder and drier, and indoor heating is cranked up.
Staying hydrated, applying plenty of moisturizer to your skin, and avoiding overly heated air and hot showers can all help prevent your skin from becoming too dry.
If your skin does become severely dry, home treatments can often help. But if your skin doesn’t improve, or the symptoms get worse, be sure to follow up with a healthcare professional.