Dry or sensitive skin is very common. It can also be treated easily. Learn how to take care of your skin if it is dry or sensitive.
Dry skin is a very common skin condition. It can make your skin feel irritated and itchy. Dry skin often worsens in the winter when the air is cold and dry. Bathing often also makes it worse. With no treatment, dry skin may become flaky or scaly.
The Medical Dermatology Program at Massachusetts General Hospital is a full-service dermatology practice that provides care for all skin, hair and nail conditions.
What is dry skin?
Dry skin is very common. It can make your skin feel irritated and itchy. Dry skin often worsens in the winter when the air is cold and dry. Bathing often also makes it worse. With no treatment, dry skin may become flaky or scaly.
What causes dry skin?
Dry skin happens when skin loses too much moisture. Skin thins and sweats less with age. So older adults often have dry skin. Other causes of dry skin include:
Living in dry, desert climates
Jobs that need frequent handwashing
Skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis
Hot water, such as from frequent hot baths or showers
What are the symptoms of dry skin?
Dry skin can affect people differently. Symptoms include:
Rough skin that is scaly or flaky
Mild to moderate itching
Cracking skin that may bleed
Chapped or cracked lips
How is dry skin diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can usually diagnose dry skin by examining your skin. Your provider may also ask about your health history and your daily habits. If your healthcare provider thinks your dry skin may be from an underlying health problem, you may have other tests.
How is dry skin treated?
Shorter baths or showering less often can help improve dry skin. And when you do bathe or shower, use warm water, not hot. Using ointments, lotions, or creams that keep the moisture in also helps.
Apply moisturizers right away after bathing or showering. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a product that contains petroleum jelly or lanolin.
Don't use harsh soaps, detergents, or perfumes. These tend to dry the skin. Mild moisturizing cleansers or body washes for dry skin are better.
Gently blot your skin dry. Don't rub it.
Limit baths and showers to 5 to 10 minutes.
Apply moisturizer right after bathing or washing your hands.
Use fragrance-free soaps and laundry detergents that don't contain dyes or perfumes and that are labeled as "hypoallergenic."
Don't rub or scratch the skin. This can aggravate the symptoms and cause infection.
Apply a salicylic acid lotion or cream for thick, scaly skin. This removes the top layer of skin. But these may irritate other skin areas.
Use a moisturizer that prevents the loss of moisture into the air. Ointments that are greasy are best, but you may prefer creams.
Try cortisone creams. They may help dry, itchy skin.
Try using a humidifier in your home. If dry skin isn’t helped with these treatments, your healthcare provider may prescribe a prescription medicine to apply to your skin.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call your healthcare provider if:
You have itching without a visible rash
The itching and dryness are so bad you can't sleep
You have scratched so hard that you have open cuts or sores
Home remedies have not relieved the dryness and itching
You have red and swollen skin that may be infected
Key points about dry skin
Dry skin is very common. It can make your skin feel irritated and itchy.
Keep moisture in your skin by taking fewer baths or showers using warm rather than hot water and applying lotions, ointments, or creams after bathing.
If dry skin does not improve with home remedies, or appears to be infected, talk with your healthcare provider.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
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