Dry Skin: Common Causes and How To Find Relief

By Frank DiVincenzo, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 20, 2022

Dry skin is a common problem with a variety of causes.

Sometimes, the cause can be a change in weather conditions while other times, it may be a symptom of a medical issue. 

Dry skin usually causes flaking, cracking, itching, and dry patches.

The condition is typically mild, and treatment can easily remedy it.

In this article, I’ll discuss dry skin and its possible causes.

I’ll explain the symptoms and the common risk factors.

Then, I’ll talk about diagnosing the condition and finding relief.

Finally, I’ll explore how to prevent dry skin and when to see a doctor.

What Is Dry Skin? 

Dry skin, also known as xerosis, occurs when the skin does not have enough moisture or naturally occurring oils to keep it soft and supple. 

Some people may have naturally dry skin, while others develop it due to certain conditions.

However, it is usually not severe and is typically temporary.

People commonly develop dry skin on their legs, elbow, and arm, but it can occur in different parts of the body.

It can also happen at different ages. 

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Possible Causes of Dry Skin

The causes of dry skin vary, and they include:

Atopic dermatitis (eczema) 

Atopic dermatitis, also known as atopic eczema, is a condition that affects 10-20% of children and 5-10% of adults.

It usually causes dry, red, and itchy patches on the skin.

These symptoms usually come and go.

Atopic dermatitis can be genetic, but stress and allergens can trigger it.

Seborrheic dermatitis 

Seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin condition that causes dry, flaky, and itchy skin.

When it affects the scalp in adults, it is known as dandruff while in infants, it is known as cradle cap.

It occurs in other areas of the body, such as the face and the upper chest area, where sebaceous glands are present and produce sebum (an oily, waxy substance). 

Seborrheic dermatitis affects men more frequently than women.

Contact dermatitis 

Contact dermatitis is a condition where the skin becomes dry, red, or sore due to direct contact with a substance that provokes local irritation or an allergic reaction.

There are two types of contact dermatitis: irritant dermatitis and allergic dermatitis. 

Irritant dermatitis is more common and is caused by contact with irritating substances such as harsh shampoos and hair dyes.

Allergic dermatitis is caused by an allergic reaction to common allergens such as fragrances in perfumes and nickel in jewelry. 

Psoriasis 

Psoriasis is a skin condition that causes dry, red, itchy, and scaly patches of skin.

The patches are usually on the knees, elbow, scalp, face, back, palms, and feet but may occur anywhere else on the body.

Psoriasis occurs when the immune system stimulates the rapid build of skin cells.

It usually occurs in adults, and the symptoms may come and go.

Common triggers of psoriasis flare-ups include stress, infection, and injury to the skin.

Vitamin deficiency

Vitamin A, also known as retinol, helps promote eyesight in low light, plays a role in pregnancy and breastfeeding, and maintains healthy skin.

A deficiency of vitamin A can cause dry skin and hair

Diabetes 

Diabetes, a condition where the body has difficulty regulating blood sugar levels, can cause a person to have dry and itchy skin.

When a person has diabetes, the body tries to eliminate excess sugar through increased urination, leading to dehydration, and this can cause the skin to feel dry.

Low humidity 

Low humidity means that the air is dry, which strips the upper layer of the skin of its moisture.

This dryness of the skin can lead to itchiness and flaking of the skin. 

Cold or windy climates 

During the winter months in cold climates, the air is dry and absorbs moisture from the skin, which can cause dry skin. 

Bathing too often 

It’s true that bathing involves adding water to the skin, but this doesn’t have a long-term effect as the water evaporates quickly, which can leave the skin dry.

In addition, bathing, especially with hot water for an extended period, will often strip your skin of naturally occurring oils meant to keep it moisturized.

Soaps and detergents 

Soaps and detergents are designed to remove dirt and oil from the skin.

Excessive use of soap will quickly strip the skin of its natural oils, leaving it dry.

Aging 

The skin undergoes some natural changes with aging, such as becoming thinner and losing oil and sweat glands.

As a result, the body cannot produce an adequate amount of natural oil, leading to dry and itchy skin. 

Also, medical conditions common in the older population, such as kidney disease and diabetes, can cause dry and itchy skin.

Certain medications or treatments 

Medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and allergies can cause dry skin.

Acne treatments like salicylic acid may also cause dry skin.

Finally, retinol, a skincare product that causes high skin cell turnover, can cause dry and flaky skin.

Symptoms of Dry Skin

Symptoms of dry skin include:

  • Itching, also known as pruritus
  • Dry, red patches
  • Rough skin
  • Flaky or peeling skin
  • Crack in skin
  • Skin that stings or feels tight

The cause of dry skin determines the severity of the symptoms, and it will vary amongst individuals.

Risk Factors for Dry Skin

Some of the risk factors for dry skin include: 

  • Age
  • Living in cold climate regions
  • Having a job that requires frequent handwashing (for example, working in health care)
  • Genetics
  • Previous history of certain skin conditions like atopic dermatitis
  • Medical conditions like thyroid disease and kidney disease
  • Malnutrition

Diagnosis of Dry Skin

A doctor will inspect the appearance of the skin to diagnose dry skin.

The doctor may look at medical history and family history to aid diagnosis.

A skin biopsy may be required to rule out some conditions in rare cases.

Treatments for Dry Skin

Dry skin is generally a manageable condition. 

Once medical conditions have been excluded, these treatments can help:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) moisturizers to restore hydration to the skin
  • Applying an emollient to wet skin to retain moisture, especially after a bath or shower
  • Mild corticosteroid cream to reduce inflammation and itching
  • OTC antihistamines for generalized itching
  • Applying creams or ointments throughout the day to keep skin moisturized

If dry skin is caused by taking a particular medication, the skin will typically return to normal once the medicine is no longer used.

However, do not stop taking your medication without consulting with your health care provider. 

If a medical condition like diabetes or kidney disease causes dry skin, your provider will treat the underlying condition.

Prevention of Dry Skin

Some ways to prevent dry skin include: 

  • Avoiding harsh cleansers and soaps
  • Wearing gloves when using harsh cleaning agents
  • Showering and applying moisturizer after swimming in a chlorinated pool
  • Using hydrating hand sanitizer
  • Limiting exposure to the sun
  • Patting skin dry instead of rubbing
  • Applying moisturizer to damp skin
  • Use lukewarm water, not hot water, to bathe
  • Avoiding excessive scrubbing of the skin
  • Limiting standing close to heat sources
  • Using an indoor humidifier, especially during the dry months
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When To See a Medical Provider

If you experience severe itching that interferes with your sleep or other daily activities, it’s time to see a health care provider.

Scratching can cause cracks in the skin, leading to complications such as bacterial infection.

So, if your skin is red, swollen, and warm, you should consult your health care provider for evaluation and treatment of a possible infection.

How K Health Can Help

Are you experiencing severe dry skin and itching? You may need to speak to a provider. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a health care provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

What deficiency causes dry skin?
Vitamin A, also known as retinol, helps to maintain healthy skin. Vitamin A deficiency can cause dry, scaly, and itchy skin.
What is dry skin a symptom of?
Dry skin may be due to external factors like low humidity, frequent hand washing, and harsh soaps and cleansers. In addition, it may be a symptom of medical conditions such as diabetes, thyroid disease, and kidney diseases. Dry skin may also be a side effect of medications such as antihistamines, blood pressure medicines, and acne treatments.
How do you fix dry skin?
You can improve dry skin by applying oil, cream, or lotions 2-3 times daily and using moisturizers containing ceramides on damp skin. It also helps to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.
What medical conditions are associated with dry skin?
Dry skin can be caused by skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis, and psoriasis. It can be caused by other medical conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease. It can also be caused by environmental factors such as low humidity.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Frank DiVincenzo, MD

Dr. Frank DiVincenzo has been a physician with K Health since 2020. He grew up near Chicago, Illinois, but left the big city to go to college and then attend graduate school in Missouri. He received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Master of Science in Microbiology before graduating from the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Medicine.