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Dry Skin

Written by: Becki Murray

Last Updated: 1 February 2024

What is dry skin?

Dry skin is skin that lacks sufficient moisture to keep it supple and flexible. Your skin consists of three major layers: the epidermis on the outside, the dermis beneath the epidermis, and the hypodermis (also called the subcutaneous layer) below the dermis. Dry skin occurs in the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the epidermis. You’ll occasionally run across two medical names for it: xeroderma is literally ‘dry skin’ in Greek (xero meaning dry, and derma meaning ‘skin’) or xerosis (‘dryness’), but dry skin works just as well.

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Why is my skin so dry even when I moisturise it?

Various factors — such as your age, your genes, and inadequate hydration — may be contributing to your skin being dry. See the following sections of this page for more information on what causes dry skin and measures you can take to alleviate it.

But the reason might also be simple and related to your choice of moisturiser: if you are moisturising your skin using a moisturiser that only hydrates the skin, you may need to apply another product on top of that moisturiser to lock in the moisture by forming a protective barrier over it. Such products, often referred to as occlusives, contain agents such as petroleum jelly, beeswax, or shea butter that makes a physical layer over the hydrating moisturiser. 

Using an occlusive like this traps the water in your skin and so reduces water loss through the epidermis — trans-epidermal water loss, or TEWL if you like acronyms — thus helping to keep your skin hydrated.

If you find using a second product inconvenient, look for a moisturiser that includes both a hydrating component and an occlusive.

What causes dry skin?

Dry skin has several main causes:

  • Genetics. Some people’s skin naturally produces plenty of oil to keep the skin soft and hydrated. Other people’s skin is naturally drier.
  • Age. As you get older, your sebaceous glands (or ‘oil glands’) gradually produce less oil, so your skin naturally becomes drier.
  • Soaps and chemicals. Washing your hands with soap repeatedly, or washing with harsh soap, can strip the oil from your skin. Similarly, chemicals such as house cleaning products can remove the oil and dry out your skin. 
  • Cold weather. Cold weather, especially cold accompanied by low humidity, can dry out your skin. 
  • Medications. Various medications can cause dry skin. For example, diuretics can dry out your skin along with the rest of your body. Statins can dehydrate your skin. Retinoids can also dry out your skin. Those acne medications which work by reducing the amount of oil your skin produces can also make it too dry. Oral decongestants can contribute to skin dryness, as can beta blockers. 

Dry skin may also indicate an underlying health issue. See the section ‘Can dry skin indicate an underlying health issue?’, further down this page, for more information.

How can I get rid of dry skin?

Here are six straightforward steps you can take to try to alleviate dry skin:

  • Cleanse your skin gently. Many soaps are harsh enough to strip the natural oils from your skin, so you will usually be better off with a gentle, hydrating cleanser formulated for dry or sensitive skin.
  • Shower or bathe warm and short rather than hot and long. Hot water can feel wonderful, but it tends to strip the oil from your skin. Soaking in hot water can have a similar effect.
  • Moisturise your skin. After showering, bathing, or washing, apply a moisturiser to your skin while it is still damp to trap the moisture rather than letting it evaporate. As explained earlier on this page, you may want to apply an occlusive over your moisturiser, or use a moisturiser that combines a humectant and an occlusive, to keep the moisture in your skin.
  • Stay hydrated. Make sure you take in plenty of water to keep your body adequately hydrated. Drinking the water is the most obvious means of intake, but eating foods that contain a high proportion of water, such as fruits and vegetables, can make a significant contribution to your water intake.
  • Use a humidifier. If your home or home office has dry air from air conditioning or central heating, use a humidifier to add some moisture to the air.
  • Protect your skin from the sun, the weather, and the environment. Wear sunscreen to prevent the sun drying out your skin. In cold or windy conditions, protect your skin with gloves, a hat or balaclava, and a mask if necessary. Similarly, wear gloves and any other protection needed when working with cleaning products, tools, and so on.

Can dry skin indicate an underlying health issue?

Yes, dry skin can be a symptom of an underlying health issue. The following list shows the five leading health issues likely to be associated with dry skin.

  • Diabetes. Diabetes can produce high blood sugar levels and poor circulation, which can contribute to dry skin.
  • Eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis. These three skin conditions may make your skin dry, flaky, and itchy.
  • Thyroid problems. If you have hypothyroidism, a condition in which your thyroid gland is underactive and doesn’t produce the quantity of hormones you need, you may get dry skin.
  • Kidney disease. If your kidneys are not able to give your body the balance of fluids and nutrients it needs, your skin may get dry.
  • Nutritional deficiencies or dehydration. If your body isn’t getting enough vitamins and fatty acids, you may get dry skin. Dehydration can also cause dry skin.

Many other health issues may give you dry skin. So if your skin is persistently dry or severely dry, or if it is itchy and red, get it evaluated by a medical professional. Similarly, if you are taking medication that you suspect of making your skin dry, consult your doctor. 

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