What causes dry skin? And how to treat it

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi
Person treating dry skin with moisturiser
Most of us have dry skin from time to time, and it’s usually nothing to worry about. Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi, shares some expert advice on how to prevent dry skin affecting your daily life

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Dry skin and dry hands are very common skin concerns which can appear at any age. It’s not usually a serious problem, but can be troublesome and is sometimes associated with other medical conditions like eczema, contact dermatitis and psoriasis.

‘Dry skin can usually be managed with good moisturising habits,’ explains Dr Rhianna McClymont. ‘Although for some people dry skin can lead to other problems. If your dry skin is causing you distress, it’s best to speak to a doctor for advice and possible treatments.’

What causes dry skin?

Our skin is made up of many different layers and forms a natural barrier to protect our body from the outside environment.

To help prevent the outer layer from losing water, the skin produces an oily substance called sebum. If your skin doesn’t have enough sebum, it can lose water and start to feel dry.

Here are some of the most common causes of dry skin and dry hands.

Too much heat – this could also be in cooler months from central heating or fireplaces.

Having regular hot showers or baths – and excessive handwashing or scrubbing of the skin.

Using harsh soaps or cleaning products – these can remove the protective layer of oil from your skin.

Swimming pools – especially if your skin is particularly sensitive to chlorine.

Environmental changes – either very hot, dry weather or lots of exposure to wind and sun as this can evaporate water from the skin.

Age – the skin naturally produces less oil as you get older.

Medical conditions like eczema or psoriasis.

Why do I get dry hands?

We use our hands a lot during the day and this makes the skin more vulnerable. Our hands are also more exposed to irritants like the cold, heat, pollution and dirt – these all weaken the skin’s natural barrier and cause the skin to dry out. Although having dry hands is not harmful, it can cause lots of irritation, especially when our hands become extremely dry, itchy or chapped.

Most cases of dry hands are due to a change in weather conditions – this is why we often experience dry skin in winter. If your dry skin is caused by a medical condition like eczema, you’re likely to experience dry skin all year round.

It can be difficult to avoid exposing your hands to heat, chemicals and cleaning products and so this is another cause of sudden dry skin on the hands.

Symptoms of dry skin and dry hands

  • Scaly patches of skin
  • Peeling or flaky skin – often visible on a dry scalp
  • Red or cracked – very common on dry hands
  • Feels rough to the touch
  • Inflamed and itchy skin

‘Symptoms of dry skin can vary from person to person from a mild isolated patch of flaky skin to widespread and extensive scaly, rough or reddened patches of skin. In people with more extensive symptoms, their dry skin may actually be a sign of a medical condition such as eczema or psoriasis, and scaly skin can be a sign of actinic keratoses,’ says Dr McClymont.

‘It’s usually easy to treat dry skin yourself, but if you’ve tried self-management and are still struggling with your skin, speaking to a doctor can help to exclude other conditions which may require prescription creams.’

How to treat dry skin

Using an emollient (moisturiser) regularly will be enough to help most cases of dry and dehydrated skin. Emollient creams and lotions are used to soothe and hydrate the skin and can significantly help reduce dryness and itching.

Apply a moisturiser directly to the skin and use it throughout the day to reduce water loss, especially if you’re struggling with dry hands. If you’re not sure which moisturiser is best for your skin type, check with a doctor or pharmacist.

If you experience regular flare-ups of eczema and are not able to get relief from moisturisers alone, a mild steroid cream can be bought over the counter. If this still doesn’t work, a GP can prescribe a stronger cream.

How to prevent dry skin

There are lots of lifestyle changes that can help prevent outbreaks of dry skin. These are worth trying if you’re prone.

  • Keep your skin moisturised with an emollient cream or lotion
  • Drink plenty of water to keep your skin hydrated
  • Avoid harsh soaps and bubble baths
  • Wear protective gloves while using cleaning products
  • Reduce the length of your shower or bath
  • During colder months, remember to wear gloves outside and while inside, try placing a damp towel on a warm radiator to increase the humidity of the air

Dry skin in babies and children

Babies and children tend to have more delicate skin than adults – and can be more sensitive to environmental changes. This may make them even more prone to moisture loss, which means their skin can dry out quickly.

‘It’s common for children and babies to develop dry skin, and the same advice for adults applies to children too. When bathing children, make the water lukewarm and opt for a fragrant free, soap-free wash,’ Dr McClymont advises.

‘Gently pat them dry afterwards and then immediately apply moisturisers to the skin to seal in moisture. Using a humidifier in the nursery may also help to prevent the skin drying out if your child suffers with persistent dry skin,’ adds Dr McClymont.

Should I see a doctor about dry skin?

Usually, dry skin can be treated at home or with help from an over-the-counter cream. But you should see a GP if...

  • If you’ve already tried a variety of over-the-counter products and are still struggling to control your dry skin, or your child’s dry skin
  • If your skin has become cracked, sore and painful
  • If your dry skin is affecting your daily activities and causing you frequent distress
  • If there are any signs of skin infection – this can appear as discharge from the skin, or hot and swollen patches of dry skin.

Speak to a GP about dry skin

If you’re concerned about yours or your child’s dry skin, book and appointment to speak to a doctor.

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