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9 Causes of Dry Skin, Prevention & Treatment Options

An illustration of a frowning woman from the neck up, next to another illustration of a circle connected by a white line to her cheek, showing a zoomed in portion of her face. Her hair is wrapped in a white towel and there are medium peach-toned splotches across her light peach-toned skin. The circle, to the right of her head, shows her skin tone with darker, jagged peach-toned lines.
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Last updated May 27, 2024

Dry skin quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your dry skin.

Dry skin symptoms cause the skin to become scaly, rough & flaky. Every part of the body can be affected by dry skin including the penis, eyes & face. Learn more.

Dry skin quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your dry skin.

Take dry skin quiz

Dry skin symptoms

A simple case of dry skin may not sound serious, but if it is not cleared up quickly it can have a profound effect on your daily life. That's because your skin is the barrier or the point of contact between you and the rest of the world.

Overly dry skin can make you feel self-conscious about wearing swimsuits or summer clothes and can interfere with your intimate relationships. In extreme cases, the dryness and the damage it causes can lead to bacterial or fungal infections that may become chronic if not treated. Yet ordinary dry skin can almost always be corrected with the proper care and attention.

Common characteristics of dry skin

If you're experiencing dry skin, it can likely be described as:

  • Scaly, rough, and flaky
  • Gray if you have dark skin: The dry skin may appear as a fine gray "ashy" layer if you have a dark skin tone.

Duration of symptoms

Dry skin can affect anyone, especially over age 40 and young kids. A person prone to skin inflammations as a child may have very dry skin as an adult.

Who is most often affected by dry skin symptoms?

Anyone working at a job which requires exposure to chemicals, especially exposing their hands, is likely to experience dry skin. Medical providers, who are constantly washing their hands, and anyone routinely working outside are also susceptible.

When are dry skin symptoms most likely to occur?

Dry skin symptoms are more likely during colder months due to drier outside air as well as indoor heating elements drying the air inside.

Are dry skin symptoms serious?

The severity of your dry skin is ultimately dependent on the cause.

  • Not serious: A mild case of dry skin may simply be uncomfortable,
  • Moderately serious: Extremely dry skin may crack and allow bacteria to enter. This can lead to itching, rash, irritation, and infection of your skin layers.
  • Serious: Reddened sore spots, especially after constant scratching, indicate the presence of bacteria. Once this redness and soreness appears, your condition may worsen quickly.

Causes of dry skin

Dry skin is really just a simple loss of oil and water from the upper layers of your skin. Many conditions can have dry skin as a symptom, and the most common are those involving environmental, chemical, bacterial, or fungal causes.

Environmental dry skin causes

Dry skin may occur due to environment you're in, such as:

  • Desert climates
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Swimming: Either in chlorinated pools or in fresh or salt water
  • Places with long, cold winters

Chemical dry skin causes

Your skin may dry out due to certain things you are exposed to from work or other activities.

  • Hairdressers: Due to shampoos, dyes, and other chemical solutions
  • Medical providers: Due to antiseptic soap
  • Anyone working outdoors: Who are exposed to weather, construction materials, vegetation, etc.

Less common dry skin causes

Bacterial or fungal infections and inherited conditions may also result in dry skin.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Topical steroid withdrawal

Topical steroid withdrawal is a skin condition that can develop when someone uses potent topical steroids frequently and for a long time. The condition can manifest within days to weeks after you stop using topical steroids, or it can manifest as a worsening rash that requires stronger and more frequent application of topical steroids to control.

One of two main types of rashes may develop with topical steroid withdrawal at the sites of application. One type is red, swollen, scaly and peeling, and the other is defined by red, pus-filled bumps without scaling or peeling. The skin may also be burning, stinging, or itchy, and you may experience facial hot flashes.

Treatments include discontinuing the troublesome medication as well as methods to soothe associated symptoms.

You should go see your primary care doctor to talk about stopping use of the steroid. Your doctor may prescribe a medication like antibiotics, antihistamines, or cool compresses to help heal along with testing the skin with what's called "patch testing."

Normal occurrence of dry skin

Dry skin can be caused by overheating during the winter or air conditioning in the summer, the loss of sweat and oil glands as you get older, and overuse of things like soap, antiperspirant, perfumes, and hot baths.

You can treat this at home by using a moisturizer to reduce water loss and soothe the skin.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: dry skin

Symptoms that always occur with normal occurrence of dry skin: dry skin

Urgency: Self-treatment

Low calcium level

Hypocalcemia is a condition where there is not enough calcium in the blood. Calcium is a mineral contained in the blood and helps the heart and other muscles function properly. It is also needed to maintain healthy teeth and bones. Low calcium levels can cause bones to become brittle and more easily fractured. Parathyroid issues and vitamin D deficiency are common causes of this condition.

You should consider visiting a medical professional to discuss your symptoms. Low calcium levels can be evaluated with a review of your symptoms and a blood test. Once diagnosed, treatment depends on the cause of your low calcium levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, shortness of breath, irritability, general numbness, tingling foot

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis means a skin reaction that is caused by directly touching an irritating substance, and not by an infectious agent such as a bacteria or virus.

Common causes are soap, bleach, cleaning agents, chemicals, and even water. Almost any substance can cause it with prolonged exposure.

Contact dermatitis is not contagious.

Anyone who works with an irritating substance can contract the condition. Mechanics, beauticians, housekeepers, restaurant workers, and health care providers are all susceptible.

Symptoms include skin that feels swollen, stiff, and dry, and becomes cracked and blistered with painful open sores.

A medical provider can give the best advice on how to heal the skin and avoid further irritation. Self-treatment can make the problem worse if the wrong creams or ointments are used.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, to find out what substances the patient comes into contact with, and through physical examination of the damaged skin.

Treatment involves avoiding the irritating substance if possible. Otherwise, the person can use petroleum jelly on the hands underneath cotton and then rubber gloves.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: rash with well-defined border, itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, painful rash, red rash

Symptoms that always occur with irritant contact dermatitis: rash with well-defined border

Symptoms that never occur with irritant contact dermatitis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes

Urgency: Self-treatment


Hypothyroidism, or "underactive thyroid," means that the thyroid gland in the neck does not produce enough of its hormones. This causes a slowing of the body's metabolism.

The condition can occur due to autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; some medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. It is often found among older women with a family history of the disease.

Common symptoms include fatigue, constantly feeling cold, weight gain, slow heart rate, and depression. If left untreated, these and other symptoms can worsen until they lead to very low blood pressure and body temperature, and even coma.

Diagnosis is made through a simple blood test.

Hypothyroidism is easily managed with daily oral medication. The patient usually starts feeling better after a couple of weeks and may even lose some extra weight. It's important for the patient to be monitored by a doctor and have routine blood testing so that the medication can be kept at the correct levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Eczema (atopic dermatitis)

Atopic dermatitis, also called eczema, dermatitis, atopic eczema, or AD, is a chronic skin condition with an itchy rash.

AD is not contagious. It is caused by a genetic condition that affects the skin's ability to protect itself from bacteria and allergens.

AD is most often seen in infants and young children. Most susceptible are those with a family history of AD, asthma, or hay fever.

Infants will have a dry, scaly, itchy rash on the scalp, forehead, and cheeks. Older children will have the rash in the creases of elbows, knees, and buttocks.

Without treatment, a child may have trouble sleeping due to the intense itching. Constant scratching may cause skin infections and the skin may turn thickened and leathery.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, patient history, and allergen skin tests.

AD cannot be cured, but can be controlled through prescribed medications, skin care, stress management, and treatment of food allergies. Those with AD often have allergies to milk, nuts, and shellfish. Keeping the skin clean and moisturized helps prevent flareups.


Dehydration means the body does not have enough water to carry out its normal processes.

Most susceptible to serious dehydration are young children with fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. In adults, some medications increase urination and can lead to . Anyone exercising vigorously, especially in hot weather, can quickly become dehydrated.

Symptoms include extreme thirst; dry mouth; infrequent, dark-colored urine; dizziness; and confusion. Young children may have sunken eyes, cheeks, and soft spot on top of the skull.

Severe dehydration is a serious medical emergency that can lead to heat stroke, kidney damage, seizures, coma, and death. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Diagnosis is made through blood tests and urine tests.

Mild dehydration can be treated simply by drinking extra water, or water with electrolytes such as sports drinks. More serious cases may be hospitalized for intravenous fluids.

It's important for anyone who is outside in hot weather, or who is ill, to drink extra fluids even before feeling thirsty as thirst is not always a reliable guide.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, dizziness, vomiting or diarrhea, racing heart beat, being severely ill

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Dry skin treatments and relief

When dry skin is an emergency

Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if your dry skin has become cracked, broken, reddened, swollen, and draining, especially if there is also fever and pain.

When to see a doctor for dry skin

You should schedule an appointment for:

  • Chronically itchy, dry skin with reddened patches: Especially if these become raw from scratching. It often begins in infancy. It should be seen by a medical provider to manage symptoms and prevent bacterial skin infection.
  • Dry skin along with depression, ongoing fatigue, feeling cold, weight gain, brittle nails, and hair loss
  • Itchy, irritated dry skin in the presence of fatigue, memory problems, anxiety, depression, and body pain with hypersensitive nerves
  • A stubborn, itchy rash of scaly red circles with clear centers
  • Itching and irritation of the vagina and vulva in women: If your skin or membranes are damaged from scratching, microbes can gain access through your broken skin and cause further irritation or, sometimes, an infection.
  • For medicated creams: A physician can prescribe medicated creams, usually containing corticosteroids to promote healing, for skin that is broken and cracking simply from dryness.
  • To assess for a skin disease: Some cases of "dry skin" may actually be a skin disease. If your skin condition does not clear up quickly on its own, or after a short course of self-treatment with over-the-counter moisturizing lotion, you should see your medical provider.

At-home treatments for dry skin

Dry skin remedies that you can try at home include the following.

  • Use a good moisturizer: Skin that feels mildly tight, itchy, and rough is not unusual and can be treated at home with the regular use of over-the-counter moisturizers.
  • Wash gently with warm water instead of with hot water
  • Use only very mild cleansers: Such as baby washes and shampoos
  • Change work habits if possible: Try to avoid getting irritating or drying substances on your skin
  • Wear protective gloves when working

FAQs about dry skin

What causes dry skin?

Dry skin can be caused by dry environment, frequent exposure to water/soaps/detergent, and aging. It can also result from skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, and is often associated with diseases such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, and Sjogren syndrome. Certain medications can also make skin dry.

Why causes dry itchy skin?

Dryness can cause itchy skin, especially in older adults and in people living in northern climates where home heating during the winter results in very low home humidity. Sometimes dryness can also trigger a skin condition called atopic dermatitis or eczema, which is quite itchy. We currently do not know exactly what causes eczema.

What can you do for extremely dry skin?

Mild cleansers such as synthetic detergent (e.g. Dove, Olay, Cetaphil) tend to be less irritating than traditional soaps. Daily use of moisturizers (containing ingredients such as glycerin/urea) and/or petrolatum (in Vaseline) can promote skin hydration and should be applied after bathing and drying of the skin. Topical application of mineral oil also shows benefits. Always use lukewarm or warm water for bathing and avoid excessive/aggressive skin washing. A humidifier may help too by increasing indoor humidity.

Why is dry skin associated with cold weather?

The cold, dry windy weather is one culprit for causing dry skin, and home heating also results in very low relative humidity, drawing moisture away from the skin.

When might dry skin be a sign of a more serious condition?

Dry skin can be concerning if dryness persists despite your best efforts. It can also be a sign of underlying conditions if it is accompanied by additional concerning symptoms, such as weight loss/gain, fatigue, cold intolerance, dry mouth/eyes, redness of the skin, development of rashes, changes in skin texture, and intense itching.

Questions your doctor may ask about dry skin

  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Are you itchy all over?
  • Did you possibly brush into poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Peter Steinberg is a board-certified urologist and the director of endourology and kidney stone management at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is also an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. He received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Middlebury College (1999) and graduated from University of Pennsylvania Medical School (2003). He completed a urology residency a...
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