Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

Dry skin is often temporary — you get it only in winter, for example — but it may be a lifelong condition. Signs and symptoms of dry skin depend on your age, your health, where you live, time spent outdoors and the cause of the problem. Dry skin is likely to cause one or more of the following:

  • A feeling of skin tightness, especially after showering, bathing or swimming
  • Skin that feels and looks rough
  • Itching (pruritus)
  • Slight to severe flaking, scaling or peeling
  • Fine lines or cracks
  • Gray, ashy skin
  • Redness
  • Deep cracks that may bleed

When to see a doctor

Most cases of dry skin respond well to lifestyle and home remedies. See your doctor if:

  • Your skin doesn't improve in spite of your best efforts
  • Dry skin is accompanied by redness
  • Dryness and itching interfere with sleeping
  • You have open sores or infections from scratching
  • You have large areas of scaling or peeling skin

Causes

Dry skin (xerosis) often has an environmental cause. Certain diseases also can significantly affect your skin. Potential causes of dry skin include:

  • Weather. Skin tends to be driest in winter, when temperatures and humidity levels plummet. But the season may not matter as much if you live in desert regions.
  • Heat. Central heating, wood-burning stoves, space heaters and fireplaces all reduce humidity and dry your skin.
  • Hot baths and showers. Taking long, hot showers or baths can dry your skin. So can frequent swimming, particularly in heavily chlorinated pools.
  • Harsh soaps and detergents. Many popular soaps, detergents and shampoos strip moisture from your skin as they are formulated to remove oil.
  • Other skin conditions. People with skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis (eczema) or psoriasis are prone to dry skin.

Risk factors

Anyone can develop dry skin. But you may be more likely to develop the condition if you:

  • Are in your 40s or older. The risk increases with age — more than 50 percent of older adults have dry skin.
  • Live in dry, cold or low-humidity climates.
  • Have a job that requires you to immerse your skin in water, such as nursing and hairstyling.
  • Swim frequently in chlorinated pools.

Complications

Dry skin is usually harmless. But when it's not cared for, dry skin may lead to:

  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema). If you're prone to develop this condition, excessive dryness can lead to activation of the disease, causing redness, cracking and inflammation.
  • Infections. Dry skin may crack, allowing bacteria to enter, causing infections.

These complications are most likely to occur when your skin's normal protective mechanisms are severely compromised. For example, severely dry skin can cause deep cracks or fissures, which can open and bleed, providing an avenue for invading bacteria.