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Why Is My Skin So Dry and Itchy?

The Science Behind Dry Skin and How to Care for It

Your skin is made up of multiple layers of cells and proteins, sugars, acids and lipids (also called fats). In particular, ceramides and other lipids act as the glue that holds everything together. Together, these components create a barrier between the rest of your body and the outside world, helping prevent water loss through the skin.

Sometimes external factors like heat or cold can strip your skin of some of the important molecules holding it together and weaken your skin.

“When there is a weakness in the skin barrier, your skin can lose water, causing dry skin and accompanying symptoms of discomfort, itchiness, flaking and discoloration,” says Walter J. Liszewski, MD, a dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine.

When your skin is weak, particles from the outside world can more easily get into it. This is why dry skin can feel itchy. Toxins, allergens and irritants activate your immune system, which can cause redness and swelling. They also activate your nervous system, triggering the sensation of itch.

Dry Skin vs. Eczema

Xerosis is the medical term for dry skin. It is typically caused by external factors, such as your environment.

Eczema is a chronic inflammatory skin disease. It often presents with dry, itchy skin. People with eczema have problems with their skin barrier retaining moisture, often regardless of their environment. There can also be a genetic component to eczema. This means you have a higher risk of eczema if you have a family history of it.

Both people with xerosis and eczema can benefit from avoiding triggers that cause their skin to dry out.

Dry Skin Triggers

Excessive Use of Irritants

Using too much soap or using cleansers that contains harsh chemicals can dry out your skin by stripping it of lipids. Avoid repeated exposure to chemicals like alcohol and fragrances in personal hygiene products. 

Extreme Temperatures

Bad news for hot shower lovers: Long, hot showers can also strip your body of lipids and other molecules that help your skin seal in moisture.

Whether too hot or too cold, sudden and extreme changes of temperature can lead to dry skin.

Overheating in cold weather, for example, bundling up and then sweating in cold temperatures, can also dry out your skin.

How to Combat Dry Skin

Apply Emollients

“Using cream and ointment-based emollients, which replace the lipids lost in your skin, can really amp up the skin barrier and seal in moisture,” says Dr. Liszewski.

Emollients often include:

  • Petrolatum (like in petroleum jelly)
  • Lanolin
  • Mineral oil
  • Dimethicone

If you have acne-prone skin, avoid oily substances that can clog your pores and lead to acne. Choose a light, non-comedogenic (non-pore-clogging) moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated. Do not use heavy ointments like petroleum jelly in the places you tend to get acne.

Caring for Cuticles

It is common to experience dry skin on your hands and fingertips.

“Your hands go through many wet/dry cycles throughout your day, which can make dry skin worse,” says Dr. Liszewski.

For people with extremely dry cuticles and hands, especially in the winter months, Dr. Liszewski recommends following this routine before bed:

  • Soak your hands in warm water for 10 minutes.
  • Pat (don't scrub) your hands dry, leaving behind some moisture.
  • Moisturize with an emollient moisturizer.
  • Wear cotton gloves to lock in moisture and reduce the risk of greasy emollient getting everywhere.

Avoid Irritants

  • Avoid taking long hot showers. Instead, take shorter showers with warm water.
  • Use non-soap-based cleansers. These use synthetic active ingredients instead of surfactants, like sodium lauryl sulfate, which are typically found in soaps and can be harsh on your skin.
  • Limit your exposure to alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Instead, wash your hands with a non-soap-based cleanser and use moisturizer right after.
  • Stop using a product if it causes skin irritation or a rash. Then, talk to your dermatologist.

Help or Hype? Hydration and Humidifiers

You may have heard that drinking water can help hydrate skin. While this is true, Dr. Liszewski says: “You don’t need to overdo it with drinking water to help dry skin. Appropriately hydrating is an important part of overall health, not just skin health.”

Humidifiers can help in drier winter months when your body is constantly going between warm and cold temperatures. But, Dr. Liszewski adds, “They may not directly fix an underlying issue of weakness in your skin barrier that can be more directly addressed with topical emollient products.”

Dry Skin Concerns for People of Color

“Dry skin in people of color is an emerging area of research,” says Dr. Liszewski. “Our current understanding is that there may actually be a lower concentration of ceramides in certain skin types, including Black and Asian populations.”

This means that people of color may have more dryness than white people. This is something dermatologists take into consideration when coming up with a treatment plan for dry skin. Diseases like eczema will also sometimes look different in skin of color than they do on white skin.

When to See a Dermatologist for Dry Skin

See your dermatologist if:

  • Your skin is itchy
  • Your dry skin symptoms come and go
  • Your skin stays dry no matter how much you moisturize with an emollient
  • Your skin is very sensitive to personal products
  • Your skin is painful
  • Your dry skin is causing mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances or suicidal ideation

"Remember, no skin concern is too small for your dermatologist," says Dr. Liszewski. "We are here to help and treat not just your skin but you as a whole."