Your doctor is likely to conduct a physical exam and ask about your medical history, including when your dry skin started, what factors make it better or worse, your bathing habits, your diet, and how you care for your skin.
Your doctor may suggest certain diagnostic tests to check whether your dry skin is the result of an underlying medical condition, such as an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).
In most cases, dry skin responds well to lifestyle measures, such as using moisturizers and avoiding long, hot showers and baths. If you have very dry and scaly skin, your doctor may recommend you use an over-the-counter (nonprescription) cream that contains lactic acid or lactic acid and urea.
If you have a more serious skin disease, such as atopic dermatitis, ichthyosis or psoriasis, your doctor may prescribe prescription creams and ointments or other treatments in addition to home care.
Sometimes dry skin leads to dermatitis, which causes red, itchy skin. In these cases, treatment may include hydrocortisone-containing lotions. If your skin cracks open, your doctor may prescribe wet dressings to help prevent infection.
Lifestyle and home remedies
The following measures can help keep your skin moist and healthy:
Moisturize. Moisturizers provide a seal over your skin to keep water from escaping. Apply moisturizer several times a day and after bathing. Thicker moisturizers work best, such as over-the-counter brands Eucerin and Cetaphil.
You may also want to use cosmetics that contain moisturizers. If your skin is extremely dry, you may want to apply an oil, such as baby oil, while your skin is still moist. Oil has more staying power than moisturizers do and prevents the evaporation of water from the surface of your skin. Another possibility is ointments that contain petroleum jelly (Vaseline, Aquaphor). These may feel greasy, so you might want to use them only at night.
- Use warm water and limit bath time. Long showers or baths and hot water remove oils from your skin. Limit your bath or shower to five to 10 minutes and use warm, not hot, water.
- Avoid harsh, drying soaps. It's best to use cleansing creams or gentle skin cleansers and bath or shower gels with added moisturizers. Choose mild soaps that have added oils and fats. Avoid deodorant and antibacterial detergents, fragrance, and alcohol.
- Apply moisturizers immediately after bathing. Gently pat your skin dry with a towel so that some moisture remains. Within a couple of minutes of bathing, apply moisturizing cream or ointment to trap moisture in your skin. A product in which petrolatum is one of the top three ingredients may be best. Products containing glycerin, lactic acid or urea may also help.
- Use a humidifier. Hot, dry, indoor air can parch sensitive skin and worsen itching and flaking. A portable home humidifier or one attached to your furnace adds moisture to the air inside your home. Be sure to keep your humidifier clean.
Choose fabrics that are kind to your skin. Natural fibers, such as cotton and silk, allow your skin to breathe. But wool, although natural, can irritate even normal skin.
Wash your clothes with detergents without dyes or perfumes, both of which can irritate your skin.
If dry skin causes itching, apply cool compresses to the area. To reduce inflammation, use a nonprescription hydrocortisone cream or ointment, containing at least 1 percent hydrocortisone. If these measures don't relieve your symptoms or if your symptoms worsen, see your doctor or consult a dermatologist.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care doctor. Sometimes, you may be referred directly to a specialist in skin diseases (dermatologist). Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For dry skin, some basic questions to ask include:
- What's the most likely cause of my dry skin?
- Do I need tests?
- Is it likely the condition will clear up on its own?
- What skin care routines do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:
- Do you have other symptoms?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- What, if anything, makes your skin better?
- What, if anything, makes your skin worse?
- What medications are you taking?
- How often do you bathe or shower? Do you use hot water? What soaps and shampoos do you use?
- Do you use moisturizing creams? If so, which ones, and how often do you use them?