Xerosis cutis is the medical term for dry skin that’s more severe than typical. This name comes from the Greek word “xero,” which means dry.

Dry skin is common, especially in older adults. It’s usually a minor and temporary problem, but it may cause discomfort. Your skin needs moisture to stay smooth. As you age, retaining moisture in the skin becomes more difficult. Your skin may become dry and rough as it loses water and oils.

Dry skin is more common during the cold winter months. Modifying your daily routine by taking shorter showers with lukewarm water and using moisturizers can help prevent xerosis cutis.

Dry skin is linked to a decrease in the oils on the surface of the skin. It is usually triggered by environmental factors. The following activities or conditions may lead to dry skin:

  • overcleansing or overscrubbing the skin
  • taking baths or showers using excessively hot water
  • bathing too frequently
  • vigorous towel-drying
  • living in areas of low humidity
  • living in areas with cold, dry winters
  • using central heating in your home or workplace
  • dehydration, or not drinking enough water
  • extended sun exposure

Xerosis cutis is worse during the cold winter months when the air is very dry and there is low humidity.

Older people are more susceptible to developing the condition than younger people. As we age, our sweat glands and sebaceous glands are less active, mostly due to changes in hormones. This makes xerosis cutis a common problem for those 65 years old and older. Diabetes is also a risk factor, making older individuals with diabetes very likely to develop xerosis cutis.

Learn more: What do you want to know about diabetes? »

Symptoms of xerosis cutis include:

  • skin that is dry, itchy, and scaly, especially on the arms and legs
  • skin that feels tight, especially after bathing
  • white, flaky skin
  • red or pink irritated skin
  • fine cracks on the skin

At-home care

Treatment is aimed at relieving your symptoms. Treating dry skin at home includes regularly using moisturizers on the skin. Usually, an oil-based cream is more effective at holding in moisture than a water-based cream.

Look for creams that contain the ingredients lactic acid, urea, or a combination of both. A topical steroid medication, such as 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, can also be used if the skin is very itchy. Ask a pharmacist to recommend a moisturizing cream or product that will work for you.

Note that products marked “lotion” instead of “cream” contain less oil. Water-based lotions may irritate xerosis cutis instead of healing your skin or soothing symptoms. Other treatment methods include:

  • avoiding forced heat
  • taking lukewarm baths or showers
  • drinking plenty of water

Natural treatments such as essential oils and aloe are popular for treating xerosis, but their effects remain mostly unproven. One study even recommends avoiding aloe vera in the treatment of xerosis, as it can make skin more sensitive. Soothing agents such as coconut oil can help hold in moisture and relieve itching.

You should see a dermatologist if:

  • your skin is oozing
  • large areas of your skin are peeling
  • you have a ring-shaped rash
  • your skin doesn’t improve within a few weeks
  • your skin gets much worse, despite treatment

You may have a fungal or bacterial infection, an allergy, or another skin condition. Excessive scratching of dry skin can also lead to an infection.

Dry skin in younger people may be caused by a condition called atopic dermatitis, commonly known as eczema. Eczema is characterized by extremely dry, itchy skin. Blisters and hard, scaly skin are common in people with this condition. A dermatologist can help determine whether you or your child has eczema. If you are diagnosed with eczema, your treatment plan will be different from a person with xerosis cutis.

Learn more: Eczema »

Xerosis cutis can be a symptom of other conditions, including:

Therefore, it’s important not to ignore xerosis cutis. If itching or discomfort persists after treatment, bring the symptoms to the attention of a medical professional.

Dry skin cannot always be prevented, especially as you age. However, you can help avoid or reduce the symptoms of xerosis cutis by simply modifying your daily routine:

  • Avoid bath or shower water that is too hot. Opt for lukewarm water.
  • Take shorter baths or showers.
  • Avoid excessive water exposure, and do not spend extended amounts of time in a hot tub or pool.
  • Use gentle cleansers without any dyes, fragrances, or alcohol.
  • Pat the skin dry after a shower with a towel instead of rubbing the towel on your body.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Limit the use of soap on dry areas of skin and choose mild soaps with oil added.
  • Avoid scratching the affected area.
  • Use oil-based moisturizing lotions frequently, especially in the winter, and directly following a bath or shower.
  • Use a sunscreen when going outdoors.
  • Use a humidifier to increase the moisture of the air in your home.